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Tasting 600 apples a day keeps apple breeder busy

Apple breeder David Bedford tastes more than 20,000 apples every year.
University Apple Breeding and Cultivar Development Research Scientist David Bedford samples a fruit Friday at the Horticultural Research Center in Excelsior, Minn.
Image by Bridget Bennett
University Apple Breeding and Cultivar Development Research Scientist David Bedford samples a fruit Friday at the Horticultural Research Center in Excelsior, Minn.

University of Minnesota apple breeder David Bedford didn’t like apples growing up.

Back then, the main apple variety on the market was Red Delicious, and he didn’t taste another kind until college.

But for the past 32 years, he has tasted 500 to 600 apples a day during the apple harvest, which is currently in its peak.

“If [Red Delicious] was my only choice today, I wouldn’t be an apple breeder,” he said. “I wouldn’t be eating apples if that was all that we could achieve.”

The University’s 124-year-old fruit breeding program is one of three left in the country and has released 26 new apple varieties — five of which Bedford released.

Susan Brown, Bedford’s counterpart at Cornell University, said his accomplishments in the field — including the release of the Honeycrisp, Minnesota’s state fruit — have earned him the respect of the tight-knit apple breeding community.

Brown, who said she tastes just as many apples as Bedford, said it can take a toll.

“It’s safe to say that at David’s house and mine there’s not apple pie,” she said.

Bedford’s wife, Shilon, confirmed this and said her kitchen remains pretty much apple-free.

“I’m careful,” she said, “mostly because of the volume of apples he has to eat.”

Taking a chance

When he became head apple breeder in 1980, Bedford inherited the crosses of the breeder before him.

He was “fresh out of grad school” and expected to evaluate thousands of apple trees in different stages of evaluation. It had just been the coldest winter in 50 years, and many of the University’s trees were damaged.

His predecessor had marked one variety for disposal because it had significant winter injuries. Bedford said the land where the tree was growing was pretty low and that it was unfair to throw it away.

“I’ll just give it a couple more years and see what this apple turns into,” he remembers thinking.

This apple variety turned into Honeycrisp. The jump-start to Minnesota’s apple-growing industry was almost thrown away.

Bedford said the experience was a good lesson because he knows he must throw away thousands of apple varieties to find the winners. But he doesn’t want to throw away another Honeycrisp.

Cornell has released 66 apple varieties in the almost 120-year-old program. Brown has been part of five of these releases in her 22 years. She said Bedford is good at communicating with all audiences, from schoolchildren to scientists.

“I think that that’s important in our field,” she said, “to be able to convey research to an array of audiences.”

Taking a while

Bedford clearly remembers the day he tasted his first SweeTango Minneiska apple in 1999.

Thirteen years later, he looked up at the original tree it was picked from. Though it once stood among 3,000 others, the tree now stands alone.

Bedford said it usually takes a minute to decide whether a tree should move on and “get a number” — or move on to the next research phase — which has happened 2,092 times in the program’s history.

But Bedford said when he tasted SweeTango, he gave it a number immediately.

Since it was a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar — both apples bred and released by the University — SweeTango had a good chance of being a winner.

Apple breeding is not always that simple. It’s sexual propagation, so even if two trees have the same parents, they could look and taste completely different. Bedford referred to trees with the same parents as a family.

“If you can imagine having 77 brothers and sisters,” he said, “you will have some that look like you, but a lot of them won’t.”

SweeTango is special to Bedford because it was the first apple variety he was entirely responsible for. The process can take up to 30 years.

Shilon Bedford said David’s hardworking and organized nature has kept him focused during the long days of apple tastings and long years of waiting.

The Bedfords have also raised sled dogs for the past 30 years. David Bedford would go on winter camping trips with the dog team to places like the Boundary Waters, Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay.

The couple’s last remaining dog died earlier this year, but they continue a dog-sledding equipment business.

Taking a taste

On a recent day in the orchard, Bedford walked up to the first tree of the day and chose an apple that appeared to be ripe. After rubbing it off on his shirt, he took a bite, nodded his head as he chewed and spit it out.

Over the years, he’s developed a precise method for evaluating apples from the trees that receive numbers. He rates them on 20 different characteristics ranging from flesh color to flavor and then gives them an overall score on a 9-point scale.

“I don’t eat many apples,” Bedford said. “I taste many apples.”

He cut the apple in half and sprayed it with an iodine solution to evaluate its ripeness. The apple was perfectly ripe.

Unfortunately for this tree, it would not receive a number. Bedford sprayed the tree with orange paint, marking it for recycling.

He said it wasn’t a bad apple — it was “pleasant,” in fact — but it wasn’t good enough, either.

“If we’re going to take it on,” he said, “it better be amazing.”

Sharon Pew works with Bedford and just started helping him taste the apples this year. She said it takes a lot of patience because apple breeding is such a long process.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “your tongue gets to a point when you’ve had enough.”

Pew said Bedford has been helping her realize when that is. When Bedford retires, someone like Pew will have to take over as head taster and will inherit the trees he leaves behind.

Bedford said he’ll never see new varieties released from many of the trees being planted now because he’ll retire before they complete the decades-long process.

As long as the process is, Bedford said the anticipation makes success sweeter.

“It takes a lifetime to find the one or two good ones,” he said. “But once you find them, it’s worth it.”

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