Farm Horizons, August 2008

The life of an apple breeder

Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

University of Minnesota apple breeder and fruit crops scientist David Bedford of rural Winsted says it takes more than a good taste for an apple to make the grade.

Bedford works at the university’s Horticultural Research Center at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska and was part of the team that released the Honeycrisp variety in 1991.

Having grown up in North Carolina (which is evident still in a mild southern accent), Bedford always dreamed of living in the northern climates and raising sled dogs.

It didn’t take long for Bedford’s dream to become a reality, which included moving to Minnesota and raising 28 sled dogs.

After attending Colorado State University to receive a master’s degree in horticulture, Bedford accepted a job offer at the University of Minnesota in 1979.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said, and was very glad he did.

“This job really turned out to be something special,” Bedford said.

Possibly, what Bedford enjoys the most about his job is being a part of something new, especially when that “something new” turns out to be as successful and unique as the Honeycrisp apple.

Though the Honeycrisp was introduced to nurseries in 1991, the special variety is already 47 years old, according to Bedford.

For each new variety of apple, it takes about 20 to 30 years to develop before it’s released to nurseries, and then another 10 years before it’s in full production, Bedford said.

“Nothing happens fast in the apple business,” he said.

Not just any apple passes the Bedford test, either.

During the prime apple season, between mid-August and late-October, Bedford taste-tests a lot of apples; sometimes as many as 600 a day.

There are approximately 20,000 trees in the U of M breeding program and each year about 3,000 of those are rejected from further study while 15 trees continue on, according to Bedford.

Visitors to the arboretum have the opportunity to try new varieties being tested. Oftentimes, people will taste an apple and say, “It’s not bad.”

“‘Not bad’ is not good enough,” he said.

There are many characteristics Bedford looks for in an apple variety, and a combination of prime characteristics will determine the fate of an apple tree.

An apple tree won’t pass on good taste alone, according to Bedford.

The purpose of the Horticultural Research Center is for the development of hardy fruits, with its objective of combining winter hardiness for northern zones with high quality fruit; more specifically to apples, to provide a “great crunch and juiciness along with sweetness and snap,” according to the center’s web site.

Bedford not only looks for a good flavor, but also texture, if it’s easy to grow, stores well, and is disease resistant, along with several other components.

“There is no perfect apple,” Bedford said, adding even the Honeycrisp isn’t the easiest to grow and is a more expensive variety.

Joe Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Orchard in Winsted, gives Bedford credit.

“Dave has made real contributions to Minnesota’s apple industry especially with the introduction of Honeycrisp, which is a real winner of an apple,” Carlson said.

Honeycrisp has been such a good producer in his orchard, Carlson plans on planting even more acreage next year.

Bedford says only one in 10,000 apple varieties is actually good enough to be named and released.

“The Honeycrisp is one in 100,000 though,” Bedford said, due to its unique combination of good qualities including a sweet flavor and crisp texture.

As a child, Bedford remembers apples being his least favorite fruit because he didn’t like the Red Delicious apple. To him, this big, red, apple was soft and mealy in texture.

Bedford’s job is partly finding an apple people want to eat without having to be prodded, he said.

Also, since it’s human nature to be progressively improving products, apples are no different.

“If we can [produce a variety such as] Honeycrisp instead of another Red Delicious, it’s good for everybody,” he said.

Aside from the success of the Honeycrisp, Bedford helped introduce Zestar in 1996, and SnowSweet in 2006. He is currently working on a niche variety that will grow well in northern Minnesota and is the grandparent of Honeycrisp, according to Bedford.

To name the apple, Bedford decided to have a little fun and requested visitors of the arboretum to submit their name choice.

From the 6,000 names submitted, Bedford decided “Frostbite” was quite appropriate for this small and unusual-flavored apple suitable for colder climates.

But with SnowSweet just starting to become available to nurseries (another four years before it gets to growers) apple-eaters won’t likely be seeing Frostbite in the stores anytime soon.

This year, the breeding center turned 100 years old. Haralson, and now Honeycrisp, have gained international interest.

“[Honeycrisp] has been the pinnacle of our success,” Bedford said.

Though proud of the center’s accomplishments, Bedford can get pretty tired of eating so many apples in one day, but assures, “It’s nothing a good meal and a good night’s sleep can’t cure.”

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