Few trends are more important to the future of the produce industry than the growth of proprietary produce. At the center of this is breeding, and at the center of breeding in the world of apples is Cornell’s Susan Brown. We were excited that she was willing to be a part of this year’s Global Trade Symposium, co-located with the New York Produce Show and Conference, and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to talk with Professor Brown and see what her thoughts are on breeding, marketing and the changes rolling through the produce industry:
Herman M. Cohn Professor of
Agriculture and Life Science
School of Integrative Plant Science
Ithaca, New York
Q: I had a thoughtful conversation with Jim Prevor about his enthusiasm and vision for you sharing your invaluable insights and expertise at The New York Produce Show. Since your topic has a global component and the issues are far-reaching in scope, The Global Trade Symposium will be an excellent forum for you to speak and interact with Jim in a Q&A-style discussion, as well as with a diverse international audience of produce executives. Let’s give attendees a preview of your impressive wheelhouse to help the industry reach new plateaus… To start, could you share some of your background and biographical story and how that has led to what you are doing today?
A: I have had a fascination with science since I was a young child, and my Mom had an amazing “green thumb,” so I was exposed to many different flowering plants in the house and garden at an early age. My father bred racing pigeons, so breeding was also introduced. I was hooked with my first Botany course at the University of Connecticut… I decided to pursue plants, and my first breeding course explained that in breeding you can produce plants that no one else had ever seen. I was set. I then went to Rutgers and was trained in fruit breeding and then to UC Davis for doctoral training in quantitative genetics.
Q: Jim has a recollection of first meeting you 10 to 15 years ago, when there was a change in the law allowing land grant universities to make money from varieties by licensing or selling them. Cornell was looking at how it might develop a licensing model, and he remembers your important, high-caliber role and expertise. Are you able to shed light on what was happening at that time and the evolution from there?
A: This was just after SweeTango, and NBT (Next Big Thing) offered club membership to some growers in New York, but not others, which caused concern, and also that many “managed varieties” were going to Washington, and New York had no access. We wanted to offer every New York grower the opportunity to join a club to promote two new varieties for Cornell, but we needed a new organization to manage this. Our growers mobilized to form New York apple growers, which is now Crunch Time Apple Growers.
We studied licenses across the world and reached out to Jim and other industry members for their advice and insight. Jim asked why I was restricting it to New York, and the rationale was to give my local industry, which provided much of the funding, a way to benefit from their investment but we also planned for future expansion. We are now licensing these varieties internationally, to those who appreciate the fine work Crunch Time has done in establishing a market, which they will benefit from.
Q: The Cornell program has an international licensing component… Could you explain more about the program’s expansion?
A: Let me give a little background… In the past, we didn’t patent varieties; then legislation occurred, and universities started to patent to recoup expenses. The first variety I think Cornell patented was in 1983 with Freedom, but some of the well-known varieties from my predecessors, such as Empire and Jonagold, became world favorites, and those were not patented and were, and are, freely accessible.
When I started with the program, we did some patented varieties, and then did some that were not patented because we weren’t sure demand would be enough to recoup the patent costs, which can be substantial. I don’t want to get into the weeds, but essentially, when we decided to manage SnapDragon and RubyFrost, we knew that we would have to patent but also trademark the names, because a trademark extends protection of that variety past its patent life.
So, we entered into an arrangement, as I explained, that unlike other programs, we allowed every grower in New York state big or small to join this partnership. We decided at that point to share equally the risks and rewards. So, there is a tree patent, a production royalty, and a stipulation that a certain portion of the money received by Crunch Time needs to go back to marketing.
This eludes to the program’s future, and to the question of how do you get a variety going, and how do you decide what to pursue? In the past, we could have an excellent variety, but growers would only be interested in planting a few trees. It was a bit of Catch-22 as the grocery stores weren’t interested in it unless they had enough volumne. So now we’re talking 200-400 thousand boxes. With Crunch Time Apple Growers, it has allowed us to bring together a big enough group to provide for the production we would need to make it to marketing, to have enough marketing dollars to allow us to grab attention while it was growing. Crunch Time has also done a wonderful job with social media.
For international licenses, we are working with PVM (Proprietary Variety Management). Interestingly, it is the same group that is commercializing Cosmic Crisp for Washington as well as internationally. We do a specific series of licensing with a group affiliated with international nurseries.
I’m friends with the vast majority of apple breeders in the U.S. and North America, and we do have a great relationship internationally. We meet together as a group at different times. But I think because of intellectual property rights protections, we don’t share information like we used to. That’s understandable. We share data, like with ROsBreed, which was a big cooperative project. We share data on the sugars and acids, or certain genes in apples to make our data set bigger and more informative, so we collaborate to that extent, but less so with the sharing of materials because now you could use someone’s material and get an advantage from their program. We’re good collaborators, so it works out really well.
Q: Could you talk about the nature of breeding, and what this may mean, especially with a few issues: The first issue, GMO’s and whether breeding will move in that direction.
A: There is a lot of confusion about GMOS (where the controversy is typically regarding genetically modified organism with non-native genes) and traditional breeding, which is genetic modification, but it is analogous to humans having children. If you have children/offspring, then you have done genetic modification, shuffling of your and your partner’s genes.
I am an advocate of both approaches, but I also stress that transparency is important. We are learning more about trait improvement with their use, but it is not yet, what was often referred to as “precision breeding”.
Q: Related to that, how about new technologies like CRISPR?
A: CRISPR can do some things and not others, and varieties modified with this approach still need to be tested for a period of time to ensure that there are no “off target” effects. CRISPR allows us to target traits without foreign DNA. It may be more acceptable to consumers, but that remains to be seen. In the EU, this is still deemed transgenic.
Q: Many non-GMO technologies can cause mutations if they keep growing, also doing other things to seeds like using radiation and different chemicals. Is it clear consumers would understand these processes, and if so, would they find these better than GMO’s?
A: In tree fruits and many other crops, the use of radiation or chemical mutagenesis had a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, but these processes were largely abandoned because too many mutations were formed and plants were weakened or required too much time to evaluate for hidden mutations. So CRISPR may be easier to understand because it is being used widely and there are many efforts at public education.
Q: There are many items such as soybeans and processed corn that are genetically modified in the U.S. Does it make a difference for consumers what types of products are GMO, such as fresh produce versus processed foods? Does it matter to the consumer if the GM item has certain qualities/benefits, such as the Arctic apple that doesn’t brown, improves taste, reduces the item price, averts disease? Vitamin A golden rice, etc.?
A: The traits modified to date have mostly benefitted the grower, not the consumer. I do not believe any have reduced price. Taste is too complex to improve. Individual traits are easier, but which traits? With citrus and papaya, the choice is easy — transgenic/GMO or no options. Disease resistance is currently a target across many crops.
Q: An off shoot of the GMO/CRISPR discussion: In theory, you can do a lot with totally different varieties and breeding. For example, the papayas in Hawaii that used GMO techniques to make trees resistant to a virus that was killing them all.
Similarly, citrus greening in Florida has become a problem. Varieties now are being modified with a spinach gene that makes them resistant to the problem. There was sensitivity to what genes they could use for Public Relations purposes — who would care if it’s a spinach gene? How can breeding be used to save an industry like papayas and Florida oranges?
A: These two cases are where GMO technology stands out, with an important caveat that the GMO fruit be of the type that is of demand by consumers. I think consumers will accept a GMO orange, lemon or lime if the alternative is no citrus.
Q: The second Issue is the general direction of breeding. Could you talk about the evolution and future? Is it fair to say that breeding for many decades focused on horticulture advancements, such as higher yields or transporting more easily, with the farmer as the direct beneficiary — ‘buy our new variety because you’ll yield a higher amount, ship more easily, product will last longer.’ Then there was a refocus on consumer-centric characteristics, such as flavor and taste.
A: Taste and quality have always been targets, but productivity has been a priority. Current breeders are emphasizing quality and new tools from large projects such as RosBREED offered us new tools to understand and mark traits of interest.
A variety has to be profitable for a grower. You can have the best apple in the world, but if it’s not making the industry any money, then why bother? So, of course, it has to be productive, but literally there’s hundreds of things that are evaluated that most people wouldn’t even think about.
For example, if you have an apple in your office now, turn it over to look at the base. If the cavity was too open, it could allow diseases to get in, but no one would think about that. There are all sorts of little traits, but cumulatively there can’t be any fatal flaw, and there could be minor deficiencies, but as long as the consumer is getting good product, and the growers are not losing their shirts and are making some money, then that’s how we do it now.
We’re not a commodity like soy or corn. Instead of getting paid on acreage or dry weight, apples have a lot of different markets. That’s why quality becomes more important with specialty crops like apples.
Q: Are these new tools transformational?
A: When I started as an apple breeder, there were only 12-20 genes known. Apples actually have more genes than humans do. Those 12-20 genes still remain active, but now if I’m looking at acidity, where there are 17 chromosomes, but we might think we only need a marker for one.
RosBreed tells us other markers are important in understanding apple acidity. It took us from using our eyes to using a hand lens or microscope of getting to the fine details of what was controlling a trait. There’s still much more to be done. We’ve scratched the surface of how genes interact, and new genes. Sometimes, in the grocery store you’ll find a Gala apple with a really strong stripe of red because that gene has been enhanced. When I talk to non-scientists, I give the example of Indian corn, where kernels are different colors, related to the turning on and turning off of genes. Barbara McClintock, a scientist at Cornell, discovered this “jumping genes” phenomenon.
Q: Do you think a consumer might see such an apple as a problem?
A: Maybe… or many will think it’s neat. It happens in all types of crops, such as African violets. It’s all around us, we usually don’t think about it.
Q: Could you share your thoughts about items like Cotton Candy grapes that bring higher premiums in the market, even if you get lower yield. Doesn’t’ this type of product development require a different type of mindset and market?
A: Yes, a different mindset is needed. I believe that if such products resonate with the current younger generation, you are building consumers for life.
Q: How do you develop, market and promote variety for consumer taste but ensure it is still financially viable, resists disease, etc. How do you prioritize and balance the different variables?
A: That is the million-dollar question, and one that keeps us busy. Any fatal flaw will kill even the most promising of varieties. We realize that if a variety causes variability in any factor — taste, yield, disease — it can lead to a catastrophic loss to a producer. So, testing across years, locations and seasons is crucial, and no shortcut is possible.
Q: How do you accommodate different people’s tastes and cultural differences in flavor profiles and preferences in the U.S. and in different countries? You’ve had amazing success with two varieties you developed, SnapDragon and Ruby Frost. In an article, you said your breeding objective is to produce high-quality varieties and characteristic crispness. “People vary in [preferences for] tastes and flavors, but nobody wants a soft mushy apple.” SnapDragon is a high-quality variety with great consumer acceptance and demand. RubyFrost is a high-vitamin C apple with excellent resistance to flesh browning.
A: We studied all the literature on consumer preferences, and also our preferences. Crispness is key. Some flavors, such as anise, are polarizing with about 50% hating it and 50% loving it.
Q: Interesting. Any other examples? Are these preferences for New York consumers, U.S. consumers, segmented by demographics…?
A: That’s a really good question. I’ll give a simple example first. We know recently there’s been a new resurrection of new varieties that tend to be fairly sweet. They’re sweet, but they’re crisp, and consumers are liking them. Honey Crisp was an example where the texture was different. People embraced Honey Crisp because of the crisp juicy texture. Honey Crisp is sweet, but it also has an acid balance.
It’s interesting that if you survey people — and I kind of found this out the hard way — if you ask people do you like a sweet apple, one with more acid, or something in the middle, everyone says something in the middle. Everybody. Then I’d start to ask what’s your favorite apple. And they’d say Fuji. Well, if you like a Fuji, you don’t like an acid apple because it has very little acidity.
Some of the studies discovered that 70 percent of American consumers (I’m not sure of percentages globally) like a sweeter apple — think Golden Delicious, or Fuji. Then 30 percent like an apple that has more acidity, so your Empire, Granny Smith, your Jazz. Both of these consumer preferences should be met.
So, for us, SnapDragon resonates with a crowd that likes sweeter, crisp apples. RubyFrost is for those that want more acidity. Both of them are important but that sweet market is driving things, although that may change.
In terms of flavors, in the past, we’ve played it safe with breeding in general. If you have an apple with notes of anise, that is polarizing — you’re cutting your consumer base by 50 percent, and some people are reluctant to do it. My view is consumers are ready to take a chance on bolder flavors. And we’re going to be giving you some of those bolder flavors. It will be interesting to see how that goes.
There was a time when people thought no one liked small fruit and there wasn’t a market for it, until Rockit came out. There are many instances where consumer perceptions may be one thing, but we have to make sure we’re not chasing something else.
Q: Those smaller fruits and vegetables, quite popular in Europe, are being marketed to kids, and the apples capitalize on convenience trends. To your point on consumer perceptions, people may not know if they like or dislike a bolder or unique flavor if they haven’t tried it, or in a greater sense, if it hasn’t been invented yet…
A: Another fascinating point… you tend to like the apple you grew up with. Toddlers don’t like to try new foods, and a segment of the adult population has a fear of new foods, which makes it hard to get a new variety going. If you grow up with Macintosh, you buy Macintosh. Now people are starting to try different varieties. Just because you like Golden Delicious doesn’t mean your children are necessarily going to like It. Do a taste test and see. There are families that buy one apple for the husband, another for the wife and different ones for the kids.
With the anise flavor, it’s not subtle at all. You either love it or absolutely hate it. In consumer panels, the skin thickness causes a reaction. When I eat an apple with thick skin, my mouth is left with skin. Apples with tough skin protect the apple, and it stores better, but women in general find thicker skin objectionable. Some people like floral notes, others find them unpleasant. There are so many factors to consider. There have been a lot of good studies that look to explain what people like, why they like it and why they don’t.
A lot of literature shows Americans buy with their eyes, which tends to be size and color, but in Europe, especially places like Germany, they don’t care what an apple looks like as long as it tastes good. With Americans, if there’s a little ding, cut in the skin or bruise in the apple, it’s contributing to waste, because people say they won’t spend the money if it’s not perfect. It’s hard to find perfect fruit. I’m guilty of it too. You go to a big grocery store and look to get the most perfect fruit. And that’s asking a lot of the industry.
Q: Aren’t we past those days long ago where apples were beautifully shiny and waxy on the outside, but tasted like cardboard? At the same time, imperfect, ugly fruit type programs to combat food waste have had mixed results for retailers’ bottom line, despite enthusiasm and creative marketing campaigns…
A: When we’re breeding, we do consider the visual side, but less so than before. For example, one of the apples I’m naming this coming year is unusual in appearance, and not shiny at all. It has a dull finish. Once people try it, they don’t care about the appearance, but it will be a setback until they try it.
Now we’re trying to have something be distinctive. It’s difficult to understand but I use this analogy of families, where your children may look like one parent or the other. With an apple breeding program, we want our apples to be better than either parent, but not look like them. If I have an apple that looks like Honey Crisp, then how do I differentiate it?
Q: Could you talk more about the future of breeding. Is it related to superior flavor, developing a new white grape variety that’s better tasting than a Thompson seedless, or a bigger size berry…?
A: Improving quality is a focus. Consistency of a quality eating experience is key.
Q: How do you define quality? In relation to consistency, is this in the growing process, where it’s grown? There are so many variables for consistency…
A: You’re asking smart questions. Quality means a lot of things to a lot people. For most consumers, quality it all about crispness or firmness, and there are other characteristics that influence that. Studies have shown that if an apple is 13-pounds pressure in firmness, and you increase the sugar, people who like sweet apples like it more. But if it is softer than 13 pounds firmness, you could increase sweetness markedly and people aren’t going to like it, because the most important factor is the firmness. Then the other qualities follow.
The other thing too… if you like an acid apple, you’re only able to perceive a small scale in difference, but if you have a soft apple, those other factors become less important. So, the quality is crispness, juiciness, sugar and acid and the balance of those traits. Then there are things like the smells of an apple that you may not even think you’re perceiving.
And the problem is people perceive them differently. It’s like people who bathe themselves in perfume and think they smell fine, and the rest of us are cringing. Taste buds are volatile. So, some people may pick up a taste, and there are a lot of different variables. Quality also means not having the apple fall apart on your desk or after storage not having the same eating experience.
Consistency also is dependent on where it’s grown… does it taste the same or is not as good if it comes from Western New York or the Champlain region? Will you get an apple of comparable quality? That happens with Honey Crisp, where growers are growing it in areas not ideal for it, and then consumers are confused. Sometimes they liked it; sometimes they didn’t.
Q: That seems problematic since a consumer could then be turned off from buying Honey Crisp forever…
A: The other issue is with consistency… if you’re used to an apple with 16-pounds pressure, if you buy one not as firm, that impacts other qualities. Some fascinating studies suggest if you have a bad apple (bad pun), an apple you didn’t like, you remember it as worse than it was — I had a really crappy apple, I’m going to have a banana or clementine instead, and I won’t be eating apples for a while.
But if you have a really good apple, you remember it as better than it was. So, you can’t win, because your next apple won’t be as good as the last one. So, I think there is a bit of inconsistency in the market. That’s why my breeding program has really stressed that we want it to be quality, but we want it to be the same as much as possible.
Q: That connects to another conversation of managed licenses to control quality and consistency…
A: Yes. We know Northern Europe will produce similar quality because it’s the same latitude as us, and a lot of the climatic conditions are the same. That’s why Jonagolds did so well there because the growing conditions are similar enough to get the same quality in these locations.
Q: Do you find consumers are loyal to particular varieties? How important is it for a retailer to know their customer preferences to that specificity?
A: I think it’s a strength that our apples are sold by varietal name. I tell the story of a friend of mine’s little boy, who was five years old, and he asked for a SnapDragon apple while they were at the supermarket. His mom laughed, because when she was five, she would just ask for an apple. She found out they ran out of SnapDragon’s at the store, and he said, “Mom why can’t people share.” Here you have a loyal customer!
Selling by varietal name is different than what occurs with many other commodities, like peaches, and until recently, grapes, where you bought Thompson seedless or Globe…
In Europe, they tried to do this with apples; there were some marketers that wanted to sell a red sweet apple, and a red sour apple, and the growers and breeders went nuts because that meant, if you wanted sweet, you could get Fuji and you could get Evercrisp and Gala. They are not alike. We have variety names for a reason because people care about the apple that they’re eating.
Q: Brad Rickard has done interesting research on the importance the name of an apple can have on consumers’ willingness to purchase it.
A: Yes. That’s true. I’m aware of an apple that had four names until they found one that worked.
Q: Do you see opportunity for creating new markets with breeding? For instance, a unique item like Cotton Candy grapes, emulating a particular flavor, rather than say here’s a white grape that’s better than the one you’re growing?
A: Both these scenarios are important. The grape industry has been responsive to the need for new products, offering unique flavors, shapes and improved firmness and flavor.
Q: Can we develop specific tastes and flavors that might actually boost consumption? For example, in the apple category, Grapples, an apple that is grape-flavored. In this case, a Gala or Fuji is bathed in grape juice as an apple, not intrinsic to the variety like Cotton Candy grapes.
A: I respect the inventors and marketers of Grapples, but I’m not a fan of the approach. There is enough variation in apple flavors, that concord grape flavor isn’t needed as an additive. I think consumers will be surprised by the next generation of apples, offering new tastes and complexity of taste.
Q: What other research are you working on now?
A: Even better quality. Enhanced nutritional components, some which are involved in glucose and diabetes control. Higher vitamin C and reduced flesh browning after cutting. Unique and distinctive apples.
Q: The mushroom industry faced challenges in marketing Vitamin D mushrooms. In this case, the mushrooms are the same, but infused with Vitamin D involving special equipment, lights and facilities, which requires a financial investment. It was hard to get buy-in from retailers because of the higher price, and questions whether consumers saw the increased value. In the case of breeding, is there the advantage that it doesn’t cost more once the product is developed?
A: The simpler the approach, the better.
Q: Do you push your imagination when forecasting trends and futuristic possibilities? Now seedless watermelons are ubiquitous. Do you predict certain traits as ubiquitous in the future? What is your vision 5-10 years down the line…and decades ahead?
A: Great question. As breeders, we’re always looking toward the future because the process takes so long, and we want to make sure we’re breeding for tomorrow’s consumers as well.
One thing that isn’t really consumer-driven, but we will have to look at climate change because that’s influencing our production. That’s a real-life need, rather than consumer-driven, but we have to make sure we’re addressing that. We know that a lot of new varieties are making it on quality, which is great, and the rest is convenience. There’s a lot more emphasis on pre-sliced, pre-packaged, and that requires non-browning and high vitamin C characteristics. We will have less pesticides and availability of materials to spray. We know disease-resistance is going to be more important.
In my mind, for what I’m looking for in the future, quality will increase beyond anything anyone has seen to date. It’s a tough call, but I think we will have things that will really surprise people. Even though we have wonderful apples, the eating experience will reach heightened levels.
When my husband’s parents were still alive, they would be upset with me because they had liked apples they bought at the supermarket until they tasted some of the new varieties I was bringing home!
What I’m not going to do: college students and my kids want me to come up with a seedless coreless apple, and I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. In 1915, there was a company that was trying to do it, and said it was going to revolutionize the world. They weren’t able to do it, and I’m not either.
The other trend you see is red flushed apples, where you cut it open and it’s red inside like a beet. While I know there are good growers in the industry, I’m not sure that’s a trend that brings the best quality. It may add more nutrition, and we’re going to do things in that regard too.
Q: You’re saying it’s difficult to produce a red flush apple?
A: It’s difficult to produce without the acidity and astringency beyond what most people like. It’s not something I think is worth pursuing.
Q: Maybe it’s gimmicky or niche?
A: I was going to say that it’s more of a niche. I also said Rocket apples weren’t going to succeed because who would buy small apples in a tennis ball container. The minute I said that, they got $10 million in orders. Maybe that’s why I’m better as a breeder than a marketer!
Q: Could you talk about the issue of speed with the breeding process, from planting the seed to seeing the product on the retail shelf? You point out that breeding superior apples involves many years of research and testing. The SnapDragon took 11 years and the RubyFrost took 17 years from first making the crosses to commercialization, and many new apple varieties take 20 to 40 years.
A: I believe we can release varieties sooner due to cultural changes, but grower trials and collaboration with my wonderful Cornell colleagues is key. I believe SnapDragon was one of the fastest varietal releases, due to early grower testing.
Q: Would some of these GMO and CRISPR techniques speed up breeding in general and have more taste?
A: There are over 57,000 genes in an apple, and these interact for traits such as flavor. Currently key genes can be targeted in GMO and CRISPR technology but not several genes and not their interactions. This technology is likely to be great for resistance to diseases, but not for complex traits such as taste. We may get there in the future, but not at the present time. Again, I support GMO and CRISPR research, but stress that it does not improve the speed of variety release. It may in the future, but only for some traits.
Q: With consumers expecting year-round supply, does it make a difference that apples are a storage crop so you can keep it fresh for many months, extending the season? Growing in different parts of the world increases licenses. How is global competition impacting strategies?
A: Dual hemisphere production is allowing full-year production, but consistency of quality must be the same.
Q: How does this coincide with the different models that exist with licensing arrangements, from Driscoll’s model — tightly controlled with their own exclusive varieties — to a Sun World model that develops and tests varieties and grants limited licenses, to a free distribution model? What are the issues involved from economics to quality control? Do you have a view on what type of model is best for the industry?
A: Marketing dollars are key, so a license that provides for marketing funds is crucial. I’ve done open releases and controlled releases, and my experiences across many varieties is that a managed variety provides more income back for program support. They also allow quality standards.
I continue to release some open varieties — 3 coming this year —so that growers in states that do not have breeding programs have access to new varieties that have been tested.
Q: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities going forward?
A: Labor/immigration, climate change, government regulations and trade tariffs, not in any particular order.
Q: Sounds like we’ll need a few more interviews to cover all that!
A: In my mind, there are not too many varieties (of course!), but we are still growing old commodity apples that for some reason we cannot bring ourselves to walk away from. Statistics show we are still growing way more Delicious than the market can absorb. Why does this continue?
Q: Why do you think this continues? Is there a point of saturation with all these different varieties? Is it a matter of replacing one with another or increasing the types and amounts of apples people buy?
A: This is a pet peeve of mine. A lot of the major industry people say, oh, there are too many varieties. And in the past, they would say there are too many apples. Somebody had a great response and said, yeah there are too many apples but not too many good ones!
Yes, we have new varieties and they are causing competition I’d say, rather than more confusion in the marketplace. Industry people have explained to me, if you’re making any money on Delicious, you’re not going to cut it out because it’s a way to pay your bills, and I get that. I couldn’t understand that at first, but at some point, as an industry, we have to say, if there’s overproduction of some varieties, and those varieties are not of much interest, we need to cut down on them.
Q: Is there a case to be made that new varieties, and an expanse of choices, create excitement in the produce department, providing different uses and eating experiences? The apple category has led the way in this regard. The industry struggles with ways to increase consumption. Doesn’t your work help in this goal?
A: We’re pleased at how things are going. I think the best way we can increase consumption is to get kids to eat a sliced apple. If you have POS materials and samples for people to try for free, that increases sales tremendously. We’re so lucky in the produce industry to have quality products that are good for you, but unless we get them into the hands and mouths of the next generation, we’re not going to increase consumption.
Q: What are the most important lessons or insights you’ve learned in your career that you can pass on to the produce industry more widely?
A: A dear friend was quoted as saying “always buy quality; it only hurts once”. Quality is key to repeat sales and sustainability, and sometimes we forget that. I have the greatest respect for growers and the produce industry, and I can honestly state that I’ve learned more important lessons from the industry than some of my advanced university courses. I’d like to thank the many industry members that shared their views with me.
Q: In what ways do industry members help you and other breeders in your quests?
A: I stress transparency and research, but what I love about the produce industry is you know where you stand. Growers and marketers and managers will say, this is wrong… I’ll say, how come this is still occurring, and they explain it from their vantage point. There are many researchers who don’t necessarily understand the whole real-world perspective, the business issues, turnover and marketing strategies, and things I might not see in my job, whether they be a small retail operation or large chain.
The industry has made it easier for me as an academic to understand the wider issues and meet people on their own turf. The industry is brutally honest, which strengthens my resolve to reach my goals. For the next generation, I’d suggest to never stop asking questions and be sure to show your passion and enthusiasm; it is contagious.
I do private discussions on club varieties in our marketplace, what I think the problems are and what I think the strengths are, to help growers and others consider what varieties to grow and sell. It would be good to broaden the spectrum of people we educate on the different varieties and issues.
Q: Sharing your insights at The New York Produce Show is one great way to do that! We’re so excited to have you at the Show.
A: I love getting Produce Business magazine and reading the Perishable Pundit and the editorials. I can’t wait to see you guys there, and thanks again.
Breeding gets a lot of attention but the business model by which breeding innovations are brought to consumers may be even more important. One can appreciate Professor Brown’s big heart and response to political realities in wanting to allow all New York State growers to participate in new releases or even to help out growers in other states. The problem is that, as Professor Brown mentions, not all locations are created equal. In fact it goes beyond that. Not all growers are equally good. And, even if all the locations are appropriate and all the growers are great, that does not necessarily keep a limit on production.
It is easier to see in row crops but growers are often their own worst enemy. When the Pundit was selling Caribbean melons he would get very worried when we would have a year with record prices — why? — because it meant every grower would plant to the end of their credit line next year and prices would collapse due to oversupply.
The purpose of proprietary produce is really four fold:
- To keep production down so that it is always a little bit below demand so that producers can make a living.
- To restrict growing to places where the terroir and climate produce optimum flavor — so the consumer gets a consistently delicious piece of fruit.
- To ensure that only high quality growers — who know how to grow and are committed to the effort required to produce great fruit — can produce the fruit, thus ensuring the best possible quality.
- Controlling the marketing channels so that fruit is sold quickly — thus maintaining quality — and in a way that maximizes grower returns.
Of course marketing is important, but it can, surprisingly, be divorced from breeding. Think about Pink Lady apples which are just a Cripps Pink that can be grown by anyone.
Producing lots of great varieties may mean little if we don’t give growers the business model to make them a success.
Please join us at the Global Trade Symposium as Professor Brown and this Pundit sit down to talk apples, genetics, marketing and the future of the produce industry.
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The whole New York Produce Show and Conference here.
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We look forward to seeing you in New York.