State Fair University: How new apples are created

A box of Minnesota-grown apples. (MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens)

You can learn a lot at the Minnesota State Fair if you take a moment to find the experts. This year, the MPR News Morning Edition crew is setting out to learn something new about the world every day using the fair as a classroom. It’s Morning Edition’s “State Fair University,” and today our professor actually does work for a university.

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Peter Moe is director of operations and research at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and he knows a lot about apples. The  university’s world-renowned breeding program is responsible for classic apples like Haralsons and Beacons as well as modern varieties like Honeycrisp, Zestar and SweeTango. In fact, 80 percent of the apples grown in Minnesota were developed by the U.

Inside the Horticulture Building, Peter Moe gave producer Jim Bickal a lesson in Minnesota-style apple-making.

PETER MOE: It’s a traditional breeding program. There’s no genetic engineering. We really take the role of the bees. So we might take two apples — maybe a Haralson that’s very hardy and has real juicy fruit and a lot of tart flavor, and maybe cross that with a sweet apple like Honeygold, which doesn’t have the texture but has the sweet flavor. And you do the cross. So we grow thousands of seedlings and you really don’t know what you’ve got until those seedlings are big enough to have a fruit. And then one of our scientists goes up and down the rows of seedling blocks in the fall and tastes apples on after another.

JIM BICKAL: How many types of experimental apple breeds would you have going at any one time?

MOE: We probably have eight or ten thousand apple seedlings growing right now. And out of that bunch only two or three will probably get introduced.

BICKAL: Any particular terrible experiments, ones that tastes bad?

MOE: A lot of the apples are small. Some are bitter. Some are sour. Some are just so sweet that they don’t taste good. We’re looking for the balance. Sweet and tart. But texture is really the U of M trademark.

BICKAL: Has this made a lot of money for the university?

MOE: It has. The Honeycrisp is no longer under plant patent. But during the 17 years it was under plant patent it brought about $8 million back to the university. There’s no additional income in the U.S. because the patent has expired but the growers that are being licensed around the world are paying royalties back to the University of Minnesota.

BICKAL: How is climate change going to affect the growing of apples here?

MOE: The biggest effect climate change has had for us is not so much the temperatures but the rainfall patterns. They’ve been really strange. That affects fruit size, flavor. And so we really need regular rainfall during the season.

BICKAL: I like the Honeycrisp. I’ve noticed they’re really expensive. Why is that?

MOE: Supply and demand. They’re not an easy apple to grow. You have to be a very experienced and knowledgeable grower to grow Honeycrisp successfully.

 Apple growers are available for your questions every day there at the Horticulture Building between 10 a.m and 3pm.