Disclosure: I attended the 2017 #ExploreArcticApples Field Tour with Arctic® Apples and Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF). My travel and accommodations were paid. I did not receive additional compensation and I was not compensated to write this post. All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arctic® Apples or OSF.
Stepping off the plane in the Tri-Cities area, I braced myself against the warm, dry air. “OK, at least there’s no humidity,” I thought to myself. My only previous experiences with the state of Washington led me to (falsely) believe that I’d be welcomed by weather associated with the Pacific Northwest…I soon realized this region of Washington had seen triple digit temperatures only a few days prior to my arrival.
I was fortunate to attend this field tour with Arctic® Apples and Okangan Specialty Fruits (OSF) along with a group of other dietitians, writers, and foodies. Arctic® apples are a new variety of apple that’s exciting and unique for a number of reasons. Namely, that it’s the first genetically engineered (GE) apple to be introduced to the fruit market (much more on that later). It’s designed to be the world’s first non-browning apple and we were here to learn all about it.
My first farm tours were with Kansas Farm Bureau and focused on animal agriculture and commodity crops. This field tour was my first time seeing another side of agriculture and it was crash course into our food system. I walked away with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what it takes to produce the food I enjoy every day. This post will be a long read – so you can’t say I didn’t warn you!
Crash Course in Plant Breeding
After a short hike and dinner, we woke the next morning ready to dive into the world of apples. For me, the biggest benefit of this trip was learning more about the apple industry in general. It goes without saying we got a hefty dose of information on Arctic® apples, but much of what we saw firsthand is relevant to the industry as a whole. We didn’t see any labs, I didn’t peer through any microscopes, and we only scratched the surface for the technology and science that created the first Arctic™ apple.
First stop was a nursery site that specialized in root stock. I did not know this before, but the root stock of most orchards is nearly identical and can be genetically different than the cultivars that are grafted to it and eventually bear fruit. I learned that apple trees do not actually grow on their own roots – we’ve moved so far past the time of growing trees from seeds that it’s almost laughable looking back and knowing that’s what I thought was happening out here.
In this photo you can see me standing in a field of root stock that has been established from “mother” plants. Planted horizontally in the ground, they send up “daughter” plants that grow vertically, which is what I’m standing among.
These plants are then trimmed and transplanted, where they establish roots and prepare to be “chipped” with buds from the desired cultivar (cultivated variety) or type of apple that tree is destined to become. The mother plant is left to send up new shoots the following season and repeat the process all over again.
This is where I had a hard time keeping up, but basically the root stock undergoes a simpler form of grafting called “chip budding” where the “chip” or bud of the desired cultivar is inserted into a slice made on the root stock. It’s taped in place and when the tape is removed (assuming the chip takes hold) it will send out a shoot. While this process seemed extremely tedious the me, the farm workers proved otherwise. Teams of two moved through the field, one worker making the slice and placing the chip, the other following behind to swiftly tape it into place. The crew we watched is capable of doing this 4000 or more times per day!
An Orchard 20 Years in the Making
Next we traveled to the orchards where the first Arctic® apples to be sold to consumers are growing. This was no small feat – the idea for a non-browning apple first came to Neal and Louisa Carter over 20 years ago. OSF was founded in 1996 and over the years has worked tirelessly on this project.
Here’s a few fast facts about Arctic® apples:
- The non-browning feature is due to a silenced gene. After 743 trials, the genes that enabled enzymatic browning were successfully identified and “turned off”. The apple will not brown after being cut, bitten, or dented. The cascade effect that typically leads to all-over browning won’t occur because the enzyme isn’t present. Here’s a more detailed description of how they did it.
- This is highly specific and carefully controlled, more so than traditional plant breeding like hybridization. It was compared to taking a train track stretching from New York City to Los Angeles and isolating two individual railroad ties.
- It is designed to be identical to the Golden Delicious apple in every way (besides the ability to avoid browning). The Golden Delicious was selected because it’s fairly easy to grow and presented opportunities to solve problems like damage during harvest, packing, and shipping. Plus, it’s a popular variety so it made sense to choose an apple that tastes good that people enjoy eating.
- The regulatory process for the transgenic technology took longer than usual. This is partly because Arctic® apples are growing in Eastern Washington and surrounding regions (apple country) in the US, plus Canada. It’s also the first time this technology was used with a perennial plant, so it faced additional scrutiny and regulation before being approved for planting in initial field trials.
- The name and logo were created by the Carter family. Although they consulted with a marketing group, they didn’t love any of the names they came up with. The name “Arctic” stemmed from a causal conversation with family. It conveyed what Neal envisioned for the fruit; a sense of being pristine, natural, clean. The logo was designed by a family member as well.
The orchards are tarped with a mesh screen that protects again sunburn, birds, and other pests. It’s amazing that these trees, barely bigger than seedlings, are capable of producing pounds and pounds of fruit. When we were there, they were still 4 or 5 days away from being harvest ready. That’s because the farm manager determined the starch content was still too high. All fruit is a combination of starch and sugar – the more starch, the less sweetness and the more likely you are to feel like you’ve bitten into a piece of wood.
When the time is right, these will be picked and shipped to processing. Smaller apples will be cored and sliced into 12 wedges while larger apples will be cored and sliced into 16 wedges. We enjoyed a great picnic lunch among the trees, with apples showcased in chicken salad and apple + peanut butter wraps, a kale + quinoa salad, and slices on sticks for dipping into caramel, yogurt, or chocolate. My favorite combo? Chocolate sauce (by way of Trader Joes) and chopped peanuts.
After lunch we visited some of the new orchards that will eventually supply harvests in 2018 and beyond. Establishing a new acre of orchard comes with a price tag of $21,000 to $25,000 depending on irrigation needs, staking, soil, and more. So adding hundreds of acres of new orchards can amplify the price pretty quickly!
Despite this, Arctic® apples should be no more expensive that other specialty varieties of apples. OSF is taking a somewhat unique approach by letting individual retailers determine the price and shelving strategy if they choose to carry Arctic® apples. It’s expected they’ll retail for the industry average. So it has potential to carry a lot of added value if the price is no different than a standard apple.
The initial release will be a 10 oz. bag of sliced apples. That’s about the equivalent of 1 1/2 to 2 apples. It’s designed to be a snack item, so could be packed in lunch boxes, served to a family or group of people, or consumed by one person over several sittings. In the future, here’s some other things you could expect to see:
- Individual snack pack bags
- Shredded or sliced apples for salads, slaws, or to use in recipes
- Intact, whole apples
- Other varieties in addition to Golden Delicious. Currently, there are Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala apples in various stages of field trials with the same non-browning ability.
Packing Plant and A New Appreciation for Automation
From the orchards, we headed over to the packing plant. Unfortunately, because of low light conditions and my fascination with the automated machinery, I didn’t take photos at this site. Also…dead iPhone issues.
Inside the packing plant we donned hairnets and neon safety vests. I joked that although many people believe dietitians wear hairnets on a regular basis, my struggle in fitting all of my hair underneath it would prove otherwise. I was struggling!
Stepping onto the floor of the facility, we were careful to stay out of the path of forklifts carrying large bins of apples (freshly harvested). These bins weight ~800 pounds, but despite that weight the apples are not bruised or damaged so long as there is no bouncing or jostling. For that reason, they are floated out of bins by submerging them in a tank of water. A conveyor belt cycles the full bins ferris wheel-style into the water, letting the apples rise to surface.
The apple bob along to a wash rack, where they’re rinsed and scrubbed and debris is removed. After transferring to a conveyor belt, a group of workers sorts through them to remove those that are damaged. Damage could mean a cosmetic issue; consumers don’t like to buy fruit that’s blemished or dented, but there’s nothing wrong with those apples from a nutrition, taste, or safety standpoint. They get transferred to a bin to go to juicing, slicing, or other forms of processing.
However, some apples are damaged beyond use. It could be due to sunburn, which extends past the skin and into the flesh of the fruit, or pests. Although we watched for only a few minutes, it seemed to me there were actually fewer “damaged beyond use” apples than I expected but more “too ugly to sell” apples. People, ugly fruit is still good fruit!
From there, the apples are sorted according to size, shape, and other specifications. They are run through a fast-moving machine that takes up to 25 photos of each apple. This determines it’s destiny, whether that be a bag for a specific retailer, boxes or clamshells for others, and which PLU sticker it receives. The apples are fed into single-file lines after they’re categorized and an automatically pushed into the correct bin to then be packed or bagged and then placed in boxes.
Boxes are organized on pallets to be stored or shipped – the real scale of this facility lie in it’s storage capacity. There are 50 atmosphere-controlled rooms where excess from the harvest can be stored in the ~800 pound bins. The sealed rooms are able to remove all oxygen, leaving a 100% nitrogen atmosphere. It effectively forces the apples to go dormant so that ripening doesn’t continue. This enables us to enjoy apples all year long, as harvest only lasts and few weeks out of the year. Over the next 10 months, forklifts will retrieve bins and repeat the process I described above to retailers can continue to supply shoppers with the huge variety of apples they’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Pretty efficient, huh?
The Hands Who Feed Us
One of the most fascinating things to me at this site was the workers. The employees are this site are specialists, meaning they are assigned to perform the same task for the duration of their shift. This could be sorting, bagging, packing, driving a forklift, or any number of other tasks. There were supervisors walking the aisles and overhead platforms and I was told the majority of those in a supervisor role had started on the floor and worked their way up to that position over the years.
I had to pause here and ask myself, “Could I possibly stand or sit for an 8-hour shift and continuously sort damaged apples off of this incredibly fast conveyor belt?” The answer is honestly that I don’t know if I could. The hyper-focus required to spot the apples that wouldn’t make the cut in the consumers eye just isn’t a skill I’ve practiced lately. It was also loud enough in this facility that after we left, I noticed a slight ringing in my ears.
Could I work in those conditions all day, every day?
That’s tough to answer if you aren’t faced with limited options. For these employees, the packing plant offers a steady, year-round job with a starting wage considerably higher than the state’s minimum wage and might be their best opportunity to earn a living. Washington’s current minimum wage is $11.00 and new employees start at $12.00. During harvest season, there are instances where they will work overtime, but once harvest is over their work load shifts to focus on the storage and distribution of apples.
I did not confirm this but I believe many of these workers are immigrants or perhaps first-generation. The workforce was nearly all Latino/Latina. It was evenly mixed between men and women, from what I could observe. And I saw employees of all ages, too. Even though agriculture is embracing technology and automating many things, it doesn’t erase the fact that these people touch our food countless times and in countless ways before it ever lands in a grocery store’s receiving dock. It’s important to me to include this part of an apple’s story because for most of us, we’ll never see the inside of a packing plant or walk through a commercial orchard on the West Coast.
There’s a whole ‘nother narrative that could be added about the issues that farm workers face within the food system and beyond. But that’s a post for another day, and if it’s something you’d like to learn more about, please reach out to me and I would be happy to connect you with resources that can help. For now, it will suffice to say that my appreciation for the technology that makes Arctic® apples possible is nothing compared to the gratitude I feel for the men and women willing to work hard to put food on our plates.
And to say nothing of the fact that I now wonder why apples are so, so cheap…
You might be wondering, why does this dietitian care so much about a bioengineered fruit? Or why should I care about a genetically modified apple?
I’m not here to tell you that you should care…in fact, I’m not even here to tell you that you should taste it if you get the chance, although I think tasting is believing.
I just here to tell you that I’m personally excited about the prospect of a fruit that could help solve part of a huge issue: food waste. I’ve seen school kids throwing perfectly good apples in the trash because they’re too large for them to comfortably hold and eat. I’ve also seen packages of slimy, bad tasting sliced apples get tossed from nearly every catered lunch box served in my outpatient clinic job. And I’ve seen grown adults screw their faces up and shun perfectly nutritious, healthful fruit because they don’t like the way it looks.
Food waste is a huge problem and this one addition to the market isn’t going to solve it…but it’s a start.
I’m also here to tell you I’m professionally excited about technology that could encourage people to eat more fruit. Most Americans fall short of the recommended intake – this is not new information. But as a country more obsessed with health than ever, it just makes sense to me that starting with something as simple as eating more fruit could be a step towards a more balanced diet. Arctic® apples are intended to be used as a snacking apple. If that makes it more convenient to eat apples or replaces other highly processed snack foods, I’m all for it.
And that whole tasting is believing thing? Yeah, I’m a believer. As I spent the day in a 12-passenger van, passing around a bag of apple slices that had been cut nearly 24 hours ago, I became a believer. Each bite I took was as crisp, fresh, and delicious as it would have been had I cut it on my own kitchen counter.
And that, to me, is pretty freaking cool.
For more reading about Arctic® apples, here are additional links with information:
- Arctic® Apples Website
- Best Food Facts Interview with Neal Carter
- Neal and Louisa Carter Bio
- Article by Annette Maggi, MS RDN LD FAND, HuffPost Contributor
To see more on social media, check out #ExploreArcticApples to see posts from our trip.