Local apple gets a rough ride, but may yet succeed
It wasn’t going to be an easy ride for the little yellow apple.
First of all, people were biased against yellow apples because they felt they would be soft. After all, they weren’t red, so something had to be wrong with them, right?
So, whenever a yellow-coloured apple turned up in the Gala and Splendour crosses being developed in the plant breeding program at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland, it was automatically tossed out.
They were in search of a new variety of apple that people would love, not one that they would have difficulty convincing people to buy.
Then, one day, they tasted a new cross, 8S-69-23, even though it was yellow in colour, and everyone was impressed with the flavour and the crunch.
They were so impressed that the federal agriculture ministry launched a Name the Apple campaign to draw attention to it and give it a more lyrical name than the bunch of numbers it grew up with.
In 2003, the Aurora Golden Gala was born and everybody wanted to taste it.
But, it was too early in the breeding program for there to be more than the occasional few bushels of the new variety of apple available from orchards where it was being tested.
Most people wouldn’t get a chance to taste the new apple until more trees were planted, then matured to the point of producing fruit—enough fruit for feed the big packinghouse and the growing demand.
So, there was a time lag between when there was demand for the new variety and when it was available to eat.
Growers planted it because of all the enthusiasm generated by the publicity from the apple naming promotion, and the major fruit packing co-operative began to pack and ship the first loads of the new apple variety to market.
However, there were some problems growing the new variety and picking it without causing any marks or bruising because it’s a light-coloured apple with a medium to thin skin, so every mark shows.
And people desire perfect fruit—no matter how unrealistic that may be.
There were even more problems handling it in the packinghouse where normally bins of apples are emptied into a water bath where they bob about on the way to conveyor belts for sorting and packing.
The little yellow apple was jostled amongst a host of other yellow apples and it ended up with some injuries from the crowding and bumping along the line, as well as from the handling during sorting.
After a couple of years, the big packinghouse stopped handling the Aurora Golden Gala, because of the difficulties getting it to market without it showing the evidence of its less-than-gentle treatment.
All the growers who had optimistically planted it were disappointed and discouraged, because now they had nowhere to send their bins of Auroras for packing, shipping and marketing.
Some of them removed the trees, while others grafted them over to other varieties, but still others refused to give up on the tasty yellow apple with the big crunch.
Along with a dozen or so Okanagan orchardists, the people at the Auvil Fruit Company in Orondo, Washington, just north of Wenatchee, fell in love with the flavour of the Aurora.
They felt it was the best eating apple they’d every tasted, in the 80-year history of the company.
So, they planted 100 acres of Aurora Golden Galas, and they set about figuring out how best to grow and handle it so it didn’t reach store shelves covered in unappetizing bruises.
As a vertically-integrated, employee-owned fruit company, Auvil has control over not only the orchards, but also the packing, shipping and marketing of its fruit, and they found that whenever they allowed consumers to taste test it in-store, those consumers bought it, with enthusiasm.
Because of this company’s success with Auroras, a group of Okanagan orchardists took a bus tour to the Auvil plant recently to see what they’ve been doing differently with this difficult yellow apple.
The trip was organized by the Okanagan Plant Improvement Corporation, a company owned by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, which tests and commercializes new varieties identified by the PARC breeding program.
President John Kingsmill explains a program launched late last fall, called Born in B.C., Raised in the Okanagan, which is a value chain to promote and market new varieties of B.C. fruit.
Currently, the Salish variety of apple, known until a few months ago as SPA 493, and Nicola, are also part of the program. Both are also Gala and Splendour crosses from the PARC breeding program.
Kingsmill explains that the value chain concept is very collaborative, with everyone from grower to retailer involved. “They’ve all got some skin in the game,” explains Kingsmill.
He sees this program as complementary to the supply chain, which is controlled by retailers and is commodity-driven, and he expects ultimately to see new varieties transitioning from the Born in B.C. program, into the mainstream, once they’ve developed a following.
Kingsmill anticipates that will result in more growers growing more Auroras, producing more income from budwood royalties for PICO.
Those Okanagan orchardists already growing Aurora have discovered they have to take more than the usual care in growing and handling this apple to avoid causing cosmetic damage.
After touring the Auvil plant, they now know some of the measures that can be taken in washing, sorting, packing and shipping the little yellow apple that will help prevent it from reaching the grocery store looking like it’s been in a traffic accident.
However, once all that effort’s been taken, everything is in the hands of the produce department staff, who can easily negate all the effort taken the rest of the year—in one single move—by just dumping the Auroras onto the shelf.
Everyone has to be educated about taking proper care of the fruit, at all stages, for maximum success.
But the flavour is worth it, says Auvil president Mike Claphan. “Once consumers taste it, they’re hooked,” he says.
While he admits it costs more to handle (special cushioning, padded corners and specially-made foam trays to pack the Auroras in), he says it will pay off in better returns, as the apple variety is more appreciated by consumers.
And, simply producing the best fruit is what the Auvil people are aiming for, which improves their reputation for selling top quality product.
Local growers too are finding high-end niche markets for the apple where higher returns reward extra effort.
So, not everyone has given up on the little yellow apple and the Aurora Golden Gala may yet become the little apple that could become a big success.