Twenty years in the making, a selection of new WA-bred apples are in the taste-testing phase, with researchers hopeful they will become the next big thing.
From the same esteemed program which brought the famous Pink Lady and Bravo — millions of tonnes of which are now grown across the country — into the world, researchers are confident they could follow suit.
Eight of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s National Apple Breeding Program’s advanced breeding lines were put to the test in Bunbury at the weekend.
Program lead Kristen Brodison said consumer feedback was “crucial” to instil confidence in growers who may look to plant them if they became commercialised in the next few years.
Growers undertake the risk to plant these new varieties and they need to be certain that the varieties they are planting will be preferred by consumers and will be sold in the shops.
Dr Brodison said it was a decades-long process to fine-tune varieties — from crossing lines, to new lines, to testing commercial root stock — with the team at the Manjimup-based research facility working tirelessly behind the scenes to produce quality varieties.
“It takes 20 years to breed a new apple variety and we’ve been going since the late 1960s, so we’ve got a lot of varieties in the works that we can select from,” she said.
“We’re really picky in what we put out there...we make sure that they’re premium-quality apples.
“There’s a lot of production factors we keep in mind before even looking at the fruit itself.
“Fundamentally, in stage one, we look at how the tree yields, if it manages to hold its fruit well...the growth habit of the tree and if it’s susceptible to particular diseases. If it ticks those boxes we can go ahead.
Apples only produce one crop a years so we’ve only got one chance a year to evaluate the fruit.
“The consumer work is the upper tier.”
The facility — which includes laboratories, a greenhouse, glasshouse and several blocks of plantings — is home to about 50,000 plants at various stages and produces 5000 to 7500 seeds annually.
Initially planning on bringing four varieties, Dr Brodison decided to bring along eight, with consumers asked to rate each apple’s appearance, texture and flavour on an emoji rating system.
“They’re really diverse, some that are sweeter, some with more acid, some with a bit of balance, some that are really juicy and some that visually look really different,” she said.
Among them was a red-fleshed variety, which she said was particularly exciting, as they had overcome the sharp flavour the tannins created to make a sweeter variety, but still with the striking colour.
“We’ve been trying to breed a red-fleshed variety for many years...usually they are very astringent so we’ve crossed it with other apples to make a variety that is red-fleshed but more palatable,” Dr Brodison said. “Other breeding programs around the world are endeavouring to do this.
“We’re the only breeding program in Australia and because we’re WA-based, we focus on producing plants that are suitable to our environment ... so if we can breed a red flesh that is suitable to WA conditions that’s a bonus to growers.”
Dependent on feedback, some of the apples could be moved to the program’s ”Superior Selection” lines for further evaluation.
“The next step if we get good feedback would be looking towards commercialisation and in doing so, we’d plant a larger planting of the trees so we can demonstrate to industry how the trees grow,” she said.
“Then we’ll do pack-out work to see how it goes over the packing line, and storage work as it’s very common to store apples for long periods of time, so we need to know that these apples hold up in storage conditions.”
Once that process is complete, the team at the lab will set optimal sugar, acid and visual appearance specifications for the fruit, which would ensure consumers had a positive experience every time they picked up a piece of the fruit.
While confident they were onto some winners, Dr Brodison said it would be a number of years before any of the varieties were commercialised.
“When it gets further towards commercialisation we look at specifications... we need to set what the optimum sugar, acid, visual appearance specifications are.”