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Researchers build better apple, but face uphill battle
BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- Schuyler Korban knows the apple has come a long way since Adam and Eve.
People have cultivated such a love for apples that only the tastiest, crunchiest and most blemish-free make it to supermarkets.
Now Korban, a University of Illinois plant geneticist, believes he and colleagues at Rutgers and Purdue universities have hit upon something that could shake the industry to its core: They've developed a variety resistant to apple scab.
The fungal bane of growers worldwide, apple scabs are dark lesions or blemishes that render the fruit unsuitable for market, relegating it to use in cider.
"Apple scab is the worst nightmare of a grower," said Mike Ellis, an Ohio State University plant pathologist. "If you don't control apple scab, you don't produce apples. If they lose 10 percent of their good apples, they've lost their profit."
Even so, the apple developed by Korban and his colleagues -- called the "Juliet" -- could face tough challenges.
Orchard growers are notoriously fickle when it comes to trying new things in a U.S. market that, according to the U.S. Apple Association, produced 9.8 billion bushels of apples last year.
And attempts since the 1940s to market scab-resistant apples have failed, mostly because of taste.
Juliet's skeptics include Dennis Ringhausen, president of the Illinois State Horticultural Society, whose family runs two Southern Illinois orchards that produce 10,000 to 20,000 bushels annually of various apple varieties.
"The Juliet might be a beautiful apple, but if it doesn't taste worth a darn I'm not going to plant it," Ringhausen said.
What's more, he said, controlling apple scab "is not that big of a deal if you watch what's going on" and apply chemical sprays that he acknowledges are expensive, some running $300 a gallon.
Korban claims Juliet makes a juicy leap over its predecessors: The largely red variety with some green undercolor tastes good, with less sugar than the Fuji but enough balance of sugar and acid to be considered full-flavored.
"This one has a very outstanding quality," Korban said of Juliet, which he said stays on the tree longer, can be kept in cold storage for six months and ripens two weeks after Red Delicious, making it more marketable as a late-season apple.