Hard graft and miracles
Creating a new apple variety is like playing the lottery: you can wait years for a big winner and it may never come. Even so, one Belgian family is growing a profitable business from it
• Johan Nicolaï claims to be one of the most successful independent apple breeders in the world – one of only four or five companies to have made a success of it. The now 63-year-old’s nursery lies in the Belgian province of Limburg, between Maastricht and Brussels.
It was a crisis that kicked off his career: apple breeders and farmers had concentrated on the appearance of the fruit for decades. Supermarket customers mainly chose round red apples, apparently proving the breeders right. But by the late 80s it dawned on Europe’s apple breeders that perhaps they had been overdoing it. They realised all those nice-looking apples were no longer quite so appetising. Many tasted mealy and lacked that vital crunch, and customers were buying fewer of them. The price dropped, until one day there was no getting away from it: new and better varieties were needed.
So Nicolaï, an agronomist by training, set off with his former professor at Leuven University on a world tour of the most important state breeding institutes – in Germany, France, South Africa, the US, New Zealand and Japan. In two weeks they had learned they could do a better job. “We saw how inefficient the breeding of apples was. And how it bypassed customers’ needs. Breeding a variety of apple usually took over 20 years and when one breeder retired the job was passed on to the next,” says Nicolaï. “A lot of things were bred that were not to the customers’ tastes.”
Apples are an unpredictable fruit, even after two millennia of human cultivation; some smell like stink bugs, others taste sharper than lemons and are so bitter they can make you nauseous. An apple is not naturally pretty and sweet – it has to be bred like that.
Laura Nicolaï, Johan’s daughter, 33, has been in charge of her father’s apple-breeding programme for six years. She returned home after her doctorate in neurogenetics instead of taking up a university post in New York. “The challenge here was greater. And here I don’t have to sit in a lab all day long.”
Apples are self-sterile, meaning they cannot fertilise themselves. Every April and May she moves from blossom to blossom with a little paintbrush, dabbing flowers with pollen thousands of times. A second strain is required for pollination, so partnerships are planned between parents that taste good, grow well and are disease-resistant in the hope that these characteristics will be passed on to the next generation. The resulting apples are then harvested, the seeds are removed and placed in the refrigerator for some weeks to create an artificial winter, and then they are planted.
Every tree that then grows is a separate variety of apple, different from its parents. Apples have an exceptionally high genetic variety, much more than bananas, strawberries or cherries. This variety comes to the fore when they are mated.
From the end of August to late November, father and daughter Nicolaï pass between the long rows of young apple trees three or four times a week to test the fruit. If a tree looks sickly, grows too slowly or the apples are small and ugly, it gets uprooted straight away. The fate of the rest is decided by taking a bite.
“It’s a bit like wine tasting,” says Laura Nicolaï. “You take a bite, chew a bit and then spit it out. A lot of apples don’t taste particularly good. Some are very soft and mealy. Others are rather bitter, some are unpleasantly sweet and others again don’t taste of anything at all. We work at it for four hours a day. You can’t keep it up for longer than that.”
Only the few that taste really good are given a chance. Four years after the blossoms were pollinated, just 30 hopeful candidates remain out of 10,000 varieties – and that is assuming that everything has worked out really well.
At least three more years of testing will follow. The Nicolaïs clone the trees several hundred times by cutting a branch off the original tree and grafting it on to another tree. In this way they can make 500 copies of the original tree within a year. And then they check that the clones remain healthy, grow vigorously enough and produce enough good-looking fruit. Most of them do not make it. “They say that a good apple is like winning the lottery,” says Laura Nicolaï. “I’ve started to think that is no exaggeration.”
There are two main reasons for breeding new varieties: to get an apple that offers a new exciting taste and to produce trees that are more resistant to disease. Thousands of old varieties taste good but are unsuited to mass cultivation. Very few can be stored for weeks or months without losing their taste, or transported in lorries without getting bruised and developing unsightly brown patches.
Johan Nicolaï's biggest hit by far was a little tasting revolution at the beginning of the 90s: a strain with a particularly fine shape, round with two interlocking hearts, big, still green, a cross between the Gala and Braeburn varieties. Later this apple assumed a deep, shiny, shimmering red colour. It seemed almost too beautiful to taste good, because with apples beauty is often deceptive.
One day a very excited colleague came rushing into Nicolaï’s office, saying: “I have found the apple of our dreams.” It not only looked appetising but tasted good, too. When you bit into it you got a crunchy tang like biting into a little water bomb filled with apple juice.
The variety was originally named Nicoter and it was a huge success. Under its new brand name Kanzi it is now found in most supermarkets across northern Europe. It is probably the most successful new discovery by a breeder since the Pink Lady made her debut in Australia in 1973 and the Jazz apple emerged in New Zealand in 1985.
“Breeding a new variety of apple costs us around €800,000 [£700,000],” says Laura Nicolaï. Her firm employs eight permanent staff and 25 seasonal workers. According to the Belgian companies’ register, the firm made an operating profit of just under €480,000 in 2016. It takes the Nicolaïs at least seven years from initial cross-breeding until the first apple arrives in the supermarket. The trees of one variety need around 250 hectares, or almost a square mile, under cultivation if it is to pay off, she says.
The Nicolaïs mainly earn money from licensing – apple brands are the intellectual property of the breeders. Just as musicians get royalties when their song is played on the radio, the Nicolaïs get €1 for every tree from the farmer – and a fee for every tonne of fruit harvested. “A good apple,” says Laura Nicolai “can bring in €4-5m in fees over 10 to 20 years.”
One major reason why the Nicolaïs are so successful is that they are faster than most other breeders. Together with the university in Leuven they have developed a process that makes young plants grow faster, blossom sooner and bear fruit more quickly. While they are still very small, the plants spend some months in a climate chamber at 18C and 90% humidity under 12 hours of artificial daylight. The plants respond by growing more than 1.80 metres tall in the first year and bearing fruit in the second year – a rate of development that would otherwise take six or seven years. Saving time like this is vital for being able to work at a profit.
The hardest part of making a living from breeding apples is marketing them. “Most supermarkets in Europe have space for six or perhaps seven varieties of apple,” says Johan Nicolaï. “They sell Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Pink Lady, Jonagold and in Germany Elstar as well. So you are fighting for the last available free spot. For that you need a very special apple. And good marketing.”
The Kanzi apple is a prime example. It was one of the first varieties to benefit from professional advertising. In 2005 a consortium of big European fruit producers – FruitMasters from the Netherlands, BelOrta from Belgium and the German Württembergische fruit co-operative – bought the licensing and marketing rights for the apple. Then there was a big advertising campaign of the type used for chocolate bars or washing powder, and adverts on the radio and television. Thousands of apples were handed out free in supermarkets and in shopping precincts. Today, that variety originating from Nicolaï’s nursery has 6m trees producing 80,000 tonnes of fruit a year.
It’s partly thanks to that success that the Nicolaïs can now do what hardly any apple breeders can achieve: they sell the rights to their apples directly to supermarket chains and offer them varieties that no competitor has in its range. So in 2019 the first Coryphée apples will appear in the stores of the Belgian Colruyt supermarket chain.
But it is still a risky business. “Last year a late spring frost killed off all our new varieties,” says Laura Nicolaï. “On nights like that you are so worried you don’t get a wink of sleep. And afterwards you stand out there looking at a field where all the blossoms are brown and dead. Two years’ work all wiped out in a few hours.” Some years the Nicolaïs are not left with a single good new apple.
Despite their highly professional approach, they often speak of miracles when talking about their fruit. During one bout of frost in 2017 they noticed that one of their not-quite-so-new varieties had conspicuously not lost its blossoms, and some months later it bore fat, sweet apples that were completely unscathed. “We have no idea why,” says Laura Nicolaï.
A few months later the Nicolais received an email from an American firm. Representatives of the firm had seen this apple in a research field near Hamburg. It was the only one not destroyed by frost. Could they try it out? Things like that cannot be planned.