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To Save Apples, Look to Their Wild Roots

Making apple trees grow shorter over the years has made them easier to pick and ship, but it has also left them more vulnerable to disease.


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Making apple trees grow shorter over the years has made them easier to pick and ship, but it has also left them more vulnerable to disease.

Last fall, I picked a wild apple from a tree growing in the Ile-Alatau Mountains of southern Kazakhstan. It was a Malus sieversii, wild ancestor of the cultivated apple. Biting into it, the flavor was bitter—a “spitter,” as apple aficionados call them—nothing like the sweet Fuji apples I eat from the tree on my family’s farm in Washington State.

The difference in flavor represents 2,000 years of agricultural refinement, and a journey that took the apple out of central Asia, by way of the Silk Road, to Europe and then across the Atlantic to America. Portable, slow to spoil, and packed with nutrition (around eight percent of the daily dose of fiber, vitamin C, and potassium if eaten with the skin on), it’s easy to understand why travellers went to all the trouble.

Along the way, however, apple trees lost something essential: genetic diversity.

Root Cause

“Most of the apple trees in the world are planted on M.9 rootstock,” says Gennaro Fazio, a plant geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. “They’re clones of a tree that grew in the 17th century. That’s ancient technology.”

Rootstocks are used in grafting when the branch of a desirable fruit tree is spliced into the trunk of another. M.9 is used to dwarf, or shrink, the size of a fruit tree. A Gala, Fuji, or Red Delicious grown from seed will become tall and unmanageable, but if you graft their scions (branches) onto M.9 rootstock, the resulting tree will be only one-third the height. This results in a smaller canopy that allows more sunshine through, creating better and more consistent apples on each tree. And the lower height makes for more efficient harvesting.

The term M.9 is short for Malling 9, a code given to the rootstock in 1912 when it was officially cataloged at the East Malling Research Station in Kent, England.

What those early botanists were doing, unknowingly, was narrowing the apple tree’s genetic pool to the point where a mutation occurred. In this case, in the form of a the M.9’s shrimpy size. That process also eliminated genes that helped the tree fight pests and diseases.

While M.9’s evolution was stopped in time, Mother Nature and all her pests kept on developing ways to attack it,” Fazio says.

The result is that today’s M.9 rootstocks are vulnerable to an array of maladies, such as fire blight, woolly apple aphid, and cedar apple rust.

The disease that really concerns Fazio is replant disease. Wherever multiple generations of M.9 have been replanted, the rootstock is attacked from something in the soil. Scientists don’t fully understand why.

“That’s not a problem for sieversii,” Fazio says. “They’ve been replanting themselves in the wild for thousands of years. That’s a trait we want to get back.”

Out of Kazakhstan

For a long time, the sieversii’s identity was a secret hidden behind the Iron Curtain of the USSR. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, word spread among botanists and the USDA funded a team of agricultural explorers to search the mountains of Kazakhstan for wild apples. One of the explorers, Phil Forsline, was Fazio’s predecessor at the USDA-ARS. He brought back 130,000 seeds, some of which he planted on a research farm run by Cornell University in Geneva, New York.

Michael Pollan wrote about Forsline’s work in a 1999 article for The New York Times, and again in the book The Botany of Desire. Since their publications, a sequencing of the apple genome has confirmed the sieversii’s standing as the cultivated apple’s wild ancestor.

Pollan concluded that “the story of the modern apple, which has become utterly dependent on us to keep its natural enemies at bay, suggests that domestication can be overdone.”

Swinging the pendulum back the other way is long and tedious work. Forsline has since retired, and Fazio has taken over working with the Kazakh trees in Geneva, New York. Whereas his predecessor aimed to improve the fruit, Fazio’s work is focused below ground, to develop a disease resistant, and drought tolerant rootstock orchards can use for growing the same apples as always.

This year, Fazio is part of a research team from Cornell who will include the sieversii in a study that aims to understand exactly how apple rootstocks function at the microbial level. This, they hope, could lead to a better understanding of how to treat replant disease.

In Fazio’s own work, though, he doesn’t want to just treat the problem, he wants to cure it for good by developing a sieversii rootstock. And he’s having success.

“We’ve grown 50 viable trees that we’re testing in Geneva,” he says.

These he’s exposed to torture chamber of tests, bombarding the plants with the apple industry’s worst pests and diseases. Already, the sieversii hybrids have proven resilient to fire blight, woolly aphid, cedar-apple rust, and blue mold.

But how will they hold up against replant disease? To find that out, Fazio distributes the rootstock to research partners in the commercial industry, where they can be planted in old orchards vulnerable to the disease. The new, sieversii-infused rootstock has been shipped for planting on commercial orchards across the U.S. and as far away as New Zealand.

In a tree generation or two, Fazio will have the answer.

Red Apple Renaissance

In the spring, I returned to the mountains of Kazakhstan because I wanted to see the wild apple trees in bloom. Traveling to Kazakhstan is a pilgrimage for apple enthusiasts.

Arsen Rysdauletov, a third-generation apple grower from the region, drove me into Ile-Alatau National Park. Swatches of light pink flowers mottled the hillsides. Forsline had collected seeds here in the 1990s. At that time, the mountains weren’t protected and the apple forests were being cut down to make way for crop and livestock farming, and housing developments for the sprawling city Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city with 1.3 million residents.

Ile-Alatau National Park was created in 1996, protecting the apple forests so they can propagate their way off the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Descending the mountains, Rysdauletov took me to his home village of Turgen, where he is a third-generation apple grower. We visited his grandfather, who spoke of working on Soviet-era collective farms where they grew a sieversii-hybrid apple called the Aport. It was the most widely grown apple in the USSR and a mainstay of the Soviet diet. When Cosmonauts touched down in Kazakhstan after a journey to space, they were given an Aport to celebrate. I tried one. The flavor was semi-sweet, not quite the saliva gland bursting saccharine of highly cultivated varieties like Honeycrisp, but I could understand why chefs like Cherish Finden, pastry chef at the Langham Hotel in London, find it charming.

Today, the Aport is in danger of becoming extinct. Soviet apple orchards fell victim to an economic collapse that devastated all sectors of Kazakh agriculture. Aport orchards were wiped out, taking all that sieversii genetic diversity with them. As farms became privatized, new owners invariably replanted with commodity cultivars that sell well on world markets, like Gala and Red Delicious.

Rysdauletov is part of a new wave of apple growers trying to bring back the Aport. Their orchards aren’t big, but through social media they sell the apples at a premium direct to consumers in the cities.

We visited Rysdauletov’s newest stand of trees, planted on ground adjacent his father and uncle’s traditional orchard. As we walked between the rows of saplings, I realized that here was the crossroads of all the the world’s apple industries. In the foreground, Rysdauletev’s Aport, his family’s commodity apples behind them, and growing on the foothills in the background, wild sieversii. Lined up in exactly that order, the apples are like so many balls on a Newton’s Cradle, clacking one into the other.

How ironic the toy’s namesake discovered gravity after being struck on the head by an apple. Sometimes, the answers to science’s questions are right there in front of us. We just need to see them—or maybe, taste them.

(Oh yeah, that apple that supposedly hit Newton on the head? It was a Flower of Kent, the tree which was cloned at the Malling nursery in England, alongside the M.9. Our knowledge of gravity has developed over 450 years. The fruit that lent us the understanding has not.)

How Best To Integrate Man And Machine

By: Christina Herrick May 27, 2016


Karen Lewis, tree fruit regional specialist with Washington State University Extension, often prefaces her talks on mechanization with a tale of two orchards. She drops off two platforms at Orchard A and Orchard B. She goes through how to work the equipment, all the needed how-to information, gets crews started on them, and then lets the crews on each orchard go.

Two weeks later, she returns to both orchards and discovers markedly different attitudes.

Karen Lewis
Karen Lewis

“At one orchard [the platforms] haven’t moved, and at the other they won’t give them back to me,” she says.

The difference, Lewis says, is the buy-in from staff and management. At Orchard A, management didn’t have a vested interest in getting workers off of ladders, and so the platform was never seriously considered. At Orchard B, the opposite happened, thanks to management.

“They did everything and anything in their power to make sure to get the right people on the platform, and put them in the right block for the right task,” she says. “Really, it was all about the people, the trees, and the task, and very little about the machine.”

Such is the case with mechanization. A lot of time and energy can be spent on the purchase of labor-assist equipment. But the human element — considering how to best integrate the equipment with your workforce — if often neglected.

Labor is becoming a bigger concern for tree fruit growers throughout the country, and there is a greater focus on labor-assist harvest platforms and equipment. The success of how a piece of equipment will fare hinges upon your staff, experts say.

“If I’m the end user of the product [ i.e. your staff], I’m probably the first person you need to talk to about it,” Lewis says.

Attitudes Matter
Your employees can often feel threatened by a piece of equipment, especially if they feel they will no longer be compensated fairly for performing basic orchard tasks.

Researchers say your workers are more than willing to work harder, i.e. use ladders instead of picking platforms, because they are convinced they will harvest more and make more money at a piece rate.

Matt Wells
Matt Wells

“Pickers ultimately want to make as much money as possible during the short harvest season,” Matt Wells, production economics and business management specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension says. “If working on a picking platform will result in less earnings, they would rather pick in the traditional format [even if the work is more strenuous.]”

Man Vs. Machine
For Mark Hermenet of Hermenet Fruit Farm in Williamson, NY, the first experience using a picking platform didn’t go as smoothly as he would have wanted.

“The first day I put one crew on the machine and one crew on the ground. I didn’t think they minded it,” he says. “The guys on the machine seemed to have an easier time and seemed to pick a larger quantity of fruit that day. I told the crew we’re going to do this again and they said, ‘No we’re not.’”

It turns out Hermenet’s crew thought they were able to pick more apples the traditional way because they felt busier.

“It almost feels like you’re not doing much,” he says. “At the end of the day they actually did more on the first day on the machine versus off the machine.”

After that, Hermenet was afraid to bring up the subject of the platform again that first season because he knew he might lose that crew picking for him.


Second Time’s The Charm

Mark Hermenet
Mark Hermenet

Hermenet opted to use H-2A labor last year, and the results were markedly different. He said the H-2A crew had a vested interest in the success of the orchard, and using the equipment.

“The dedicated employee is one that is going to help you out because they want to come back. In order to come back, you have to be successful or you’re not going to be asked back,” he says.

Hermenet says he gives his crew direction, but also involves them in the solution of how to make it work. Trees in his orchard aren’t perfect in how the fruit is distributed through the canopy, so pickers often need to adjust.

“You have to find the right balance, and the guys take it a lot easier if you let them help you, or let them decide themselves what the best balance is, how best to work that machine, within reason,” he says.

Mario Miranda Sazo, fruit Extension specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Lake Ontario Fruit Program, says it’s the back-and-forth communication which will greatly increase the chance to ensure success.

“It’s not just communication from above on down; it’s a chain of communication,” he says. “Are you having some personal dialogue with your employees? If you’re not doing that today, you are not trying to build your organization.”

Mario Miranda Sazo
Mario Miranda Sazo

Pay Is Key
To truly improve your crew’s attitude toward harvest platforms, Hermenet says, you have to pay by the hour. He says his crew really enjoys using the platform for thinning, for which they get paid by the hour.

“When using platforms for pruning, hand thinning, and trellising, workers are most often paid an hourly wage. In this case workers will do what is asked of them without complaint,” Wells says. “In the case of harvest, the majority of farms pay by the piece, so a grower has to convince pickers that they will benefit (same or more pay, easier work) using a platform.”

In a time trial at Hermenet’s orchard, he says the results were almost identical in the amount picked on ladders and on a platform, and his crews felt it was easier on the platform.

“At the end of the day they have to make as much money as [they would] picking on the ground or the standard way,” he says. “It’s easier to work on the platform. If we can extrapolate that into the harvest side of it where we can make the same amount of money regardless, and you actually get more work done and they feel better at the end of the day, then they’re going to be on board.”

Miranda Sazo says there are very efficient workers who can pick anywhere from 6 to 11 bins of fruit, without a platform.

“When you bring a machine or a very efficient picking crew from using ladders, you really need to show them with that machine they are going to be even more efficient,” he says.

It’s More Than Just A Relationship
“You need to empower and motivate everyone on that ranch to make that integration successful,” Lewis says. “Involve them or involve their leadership at the beginning.”

Miranda Sazo says an orchard foundation is vital. However, it’s only one piece of the equation.

“A successful grower needs horticulture skills and sound decision-making, but it is beyond that today. Networking, the capacity to listen, to lead the innovation, to build a strong team, these are key.”


Automated Ag System is a Proud Sponsor of the International Fruit Tree Association’s 58 Annual Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia on February 21-25, 2015.

More more information on the conference go to