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NMSU publishes report on evaluation of apple cultivars for Northern New Mexico orchards

ALCALDE, N.M. - With the arrival of new apple varieties to the market place, Northern New Mexico fruit growers turned to New Mexico State University to determine which cultivars will produce best fruit in their climate.

Man standing in front of trees, talking to people, which we only see their backs.
Former NMSU Extension fruit specialist Ron Walser talks about the apple cultivar evaluation orchard during a field day at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. The 15-year-long study proved that several new cultivars can produce apples in Northern New Mexico. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

The Fuji apple from Japan, the Gala apple from New Zealand and the Honeycrisp apple developed by the University of Minnesota have replaced the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious as the most popular apples purchased by consumers.

"The apple industry has changed through the years," said Gene Lopez, a fruit grower in Lyden and advisory board member for NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. "I raised Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty and Jonathans apples before I knew about Gala and Honeycrisp."

It can be a long-term mistake to change orchards to different varieties without knowing if they will produce in an area's climate. With apples being the largest fruit crop in the state, the New Mexico Apple Council wanted to avoid such risks so it asked NMSU to conduct an evaluation of eight apple cultivars.

Results from the 15-year-long evaluation indicate that Imperial Gala apple trees will yield well in the Espanola Valley, while the Red Fuji trees have a moderate yield. Honeycrisp trees were not among the original cultivars evaluation, but were added to the orchard for observation of plant growth, yield potential and quality.

Esteban Herrera, retired NMSU Extension horticulturalist, established the orchards at Alcalde in 1996 with funding obtained by the New Mexico Apple Commission, now the New Mexico Apple Council. Eight cultivars Red Delicious varieties Imperial Gala, Red Fuji, Red Chief and Red Free; Golden Delicious varieties Ginger Gold and Golden Supreme; and Jonathan varieties Lucky Jon and Akane - were raised to determine which could be recommended to the area apple growers.

Shengrui Yao, Extension fruit specialist stationed at Alcalde, has compiled the results into a recent College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences publication that compared the eight apple cultivars.

Several factors were analyzed during the evaluation. Yield, fruit weight, fruit quality, late frost and fruit sets and training system impact on bloom time and fruit quality.

"Several of the growers incorporated these qualities into their decision to plant some of the new varieties that also had much better eating quality than the standard Red Delicious apple," said retired fruit specialist Ron Walser, who conducted the research in the early 2000s.

Walser recalls that several growers planted some of the new varieties based on the first results from the cultivar evaluation. "Honeycrisp was one variety that we introduced to the New Mexico industry," he said.

"Raising the orchard at Alcalde was interesting," said Fred Martinez, a fruit grower in Dixon. "I planted several of the same varieties when the they began. The micro-climate in Dixon is different than Alcalde so I wondered how the two orchards would compare. What I planted worked well in Dixon, and I was pleased that the choices I made were what were recommended from the research."

Lopez made some changes in his orchard because of the Alcalde cultivar evaluation.

"I put in Red Chiefs because it was one that would sell the most," he said. "I also put in 40 trees each of Gala and Honey Crisp after I saw how they did in the variety test."

Yield and average fruit weights were used to determine which variety could be successful in the Espanola Valley were the evaluation was conducted.

In the yield category, Imperial Gala was the most productive of the cultivars tested, followed by Ginger Gold and Lucky Jon," Yao said of the data collected by Walser during the 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2006 seasons. "However, the Gala apples were the smallest in average individual weight."

While Red Chief trees were the lowest in yield, the individual apples had the highest average weight.

"Ginger Gold had the second best yield and the second best average fruit weight," Yao said.

Weather of Northern New Mexico, specifically late frosts, has a major impact on the state's apple production. Determining the cold hardiness, or frost resistance, of the cultivars was an important factor in the evaluation.

"Since frequently there are freezing temperatures during the first half of May, trees that bloom later in the spring generally have a better chance of surviving late frosts," Yao said. "Also growers like to have a selection of cultivars in their orchard so blooming, and therefore the harvest, span over a period of time."

Among the cultivars studied, Golden Supreme, Red Chief, Red Free and Lucky Jon bloomed later than Imperial Gala, Akane, Ginger Gold and Red Fuji.

A second aspect of the evaluation was comparing two training systems - palmette trellis and free standing modified central leader.

"Comparing the two training systems, there was no difference in yield and fruit size," Yao said. "Fruit color was better in the trellis system. Fruit quality is affected by how much light penetration occurs into the tree's canopy."

Yao said the trellis system needs more investment and labor input during the first three to four years of the trees growth. But later, it is easy to maintain and saved labor in pruning and harvesting.

Another benefit the growers gained from the Alcalde orchards was the workshops presented by various horticulturalist and fruit specialists through the years.

"We would go down there every year for workshops," Lopez said. "We had workshops on pruning, pesticides, and general information on orchard management."

"Several growers incorporated some of the new pruning techniques that we demonstrated and showed during field days at the orchard," Walser said.

One of the best benefits of having the orchards at Alcalde is that growers can visit the facility and see what variety produces the best.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," Lopez said. "I encourage growers to go to Alcalde during the fall and see which varieties are producing. They can taste the apples and see which ones they like."

For more information about the research materials and methods, visit NMMS's website at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/research/horticulture/BL-803.pdf for the publication.