Episode 627: The Miracle Apple : Planet Money Today on the show, how we got from mealy, nasty apples to apples that taste delicious. The story starts with a breeder who discovered a miracle apple. But discovering that apple wasn't enough.
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Episode 627: The Miracle Apple

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Episode 627: The Miracle Apple

Episode 627: The Miracle Apple

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

When I was a kid, apples were garbage. They were called red delicious, and they were red. They were not delicious. They looked beautiful, but then you'd bite into it, and almost always it would be mushy and mealy and just nasty.

DAN CHARLES, HOST:

It was a really bad time to be an apple eater. It was also a really bad time to be an apple grower.

DENNIS COURTIER: Everybody really - just about literally everybody was growing Red Delicious.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Dennis Courtier. He's the owner of Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minn.

COURTIER: We were going broke. You know, we were being asked to deliver goods for below the cost of production.

GOLDSTEIN: If Courtier tried to raise his prices, some other farmer who was growing the exact same Red Delicious apples would say to buyers, hey, I'll sell them to you for less because Red Delicious apples were this ubiquitous, interchangeable thing. They were a commodity. And making commodities - whether it's cheap socks or metal screws or Red Delicious apples - is a terrible business to be in. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

CHARLES: I'm Dan Charles. I cover food and farming for NPR. Today on the show - how we got from mealy, nasty apples to apples that you actually want to eat, apples that taste delicious.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, there was a guy who discovered a delicious miracle apple, but discovering that apple was not enough.

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GOLDSTEIN: The guy who discovered the miracle apple, that one apple, his name is David Bedford. And when he was growing up, he loved fruit, but he hated apples 'cause all he ever knew were Red Delicious. But then he went off to college, and one day, for the first time in his life, he tasted a really good apple.

DAVID BEDFORD: Someone brought a bushel of yellow apples down from Michigan, and they were fresh, and they weren't mealy. They didn't have a tough naugahyde-like skin. They were crisp and juicy. And I was amazed.

CHARLES: So David Bedford thinks to himself, why not make more amazing apples? Why not have amazing apples in the grocery store? He becomes an apple breeder. He devotes his professional life to creating those delicious apples.

GOLDSTEIN: But this is a tough thing to devote your life to. Inventing a better apple is really hard. For one thing, you want a new apple? It's going to take a long time. You know, you find a couple promising apples. You crossbreed them. You collect the offspring. You get the seeds. You put them in the ground. And then you got to wait. You got to wait for an apple tree to grow up out of the ground. It takes five years or more. Finally, the tree grows up, starts producing apples. You pick one. You taste it, and it sucks.

CHARLES: That's actually what happens 99.99 percent of the time. I went to visit David Bedford at his trial orchard at the University of Minnesota. And he walked me out to the orchard, and I see rows and rows of little apple trees, up the hillsides and down the hillsides. He'd like them all to be great, but he knows they won't be.

BEDFORD: If you look around you here, what we see around us here is probably 5,000 to 6,000 trees. That's not even enough really to have one that will be a winner (laughter).

CHARLES: You're a tough judge of apple trees.

BEDFORD: Well, you know, we've got a lot of responsibility here. We're trying to save the world from mediocre apples, and we can't let our guard down.

CHARLES: And there's only one way that David Bedford can tell whether a tree is great, mediocre, worth keeping. He doesn't have a chemical test. He can't tell just by looking at them. He has to walk the rows, tree by tree, taking an apple from each one and tasting it.

How many apples do you bite into in a day when you're going through like this?

BEDFORD: An average day at the peak of the season, it would probably be 500 to 600 apples. Sooner or later, somebody has to eat it. That's the ultimate determination is the mouth and the tongue and the brain. And so you have to take a bite, and you have to decide.

CHARLES: There is a trick to tasting 500 apples a day. Bedford bites into the apple, chews for a few seconds and - this is the trick - doesn't swallow it.

BEDFORD: No great effort expended. You just open the mouth (laughter) and eject the pulp.

GOLDSTEIN: Drop it on the ground

CHARLES: Drop it on the ground, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: He doesn't even spit it out. He just kind of lets it fall out like a 2-year-old who suddenly decides, hey, I don't want to eat this thing that's in my mouth.

CHARLES: This trick, this technique, this is how he found the miracle apple. It was years ago, back in the early 1980s. David Bedford is walking down the trees, one by one, bite, spit, bite, spit. And he comes to this one tree - tree No. 1711. He picks an apple. He takes a bite.

BEDFORD: There was this moment of confusion, maybe - my goodness, what is this? This is not a Red Delicious texture. This is not even a good apple texture. This is something beyond. The two things that came to my mind - number one was watermelon. The way the watermelon will kind of break in your mouth and then the juice squeeze out of it. And the other thing was Asian pears, that real crispness of an Asian pear. But I'd sorted that out enough to say, I don't know what this is, but it's good, you know? I like it.

GOLDSTEIN: It was sweet. It was crisp. So they called it Honeycrisp. And Honeycrisp would eventually change the apple business, but it took a long time for that to happen.

CHARLES: Because think about this moment - David Bedford has a new apple in his hands, something different, maybe better than all the apples in the store. He tells apple growers about this new discovery, the apple that's so much better than the mealy Red Delicious that everyone's eating. He says, I got it, I got it. Try this. And the growers, they don't want David Bedford's amazing, new apple. They don't want it because the grocery stores don't want it. Back then, the produce section was still pretty boring. You know, you went in, you wanted lettuce? There's iceberg. That's it. You want kale? There's no kale. You want apples? Yeah, they got apples.

BEDFORD: I remember a produce marketer telling me when I first got into the business, he said, why are you guys trying to make more apples? We don't need that. He said, we have a red one, we have a yellow one, and we have a green one. That's all we need.

CHARLES: This is a classic problem for an inventor. You come up with something new, something incredible, but nobody really wants it. Nobody even knows about it. Bedford probably needed a marketing team, a big advertising push. He didn't have any of that. All he had was this one guy.

GOLDSTEIN: That guy was Dennis Courtier. Courtier is the apple grower from the beginning of the show who was getting killed trying to grow Red Delicious. Courtier used to come by Bedford's orchard every so often. He'd say, hey, you know, you have anything good? You have anything different?

CHARLES: One time, Courtier came by, and Bedford took him to tree 1711. Bedford took him to that Honeycrisp tree and said, here, try one of these. Courtier took a bite and thought, these could be the apples I've been waiting for.

COURTIER: They were that damn good and that damn different.

GOLDSTEIN: Courtier makes a big bet. He starts planting lots of Honeycrisp trees. He doesn't know if it's going to work, doesn't know if people are going to want these apples. But if they do, he could finally start making a decent profit because instead of growing the same apples as everybody else, he'll be the only guy growing Honeycrisp - at least for a while. He has a head start on every other apple grower.

CHARLES: Of course, this being the apple business, he's going to have to wait a long time to figure out whether his bet will pay off.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, he plants the trees. He waits for them to grow up. They get bigger. And finally, by the time the trees are starting to produce apples, the supermarkets are ready for them.

CHARLES: They have gone beyond Red Delicious finally. There are other apples that are starting to show up on the shelves.

GOLDSTEIN: And when the Honeycrisps finally get to the store, they do great.

COURTIER: We had retailers telling us that - and it is still true - that Honeycrisp had elevated apples to a different level within their grocery stores to the point that Honeycrisp was, in many cases, the top-dollar grossing, not just apple.

CHARLES: They were the top-grossing item in the whole store.

COURTIER: You know, not every week, not every store, not every part of the season. But when they are at their peak, we have retailers who sell more dollars' worth of our Honeycrisp every week than they sell 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola. That changes things.

GOLDSTEIN: Grocery stores are dying to get Courtier's product. He's finally selling his apples at a profit. He's doing great, making money, but before long, he sees other people planting Honeycrisp trees. And he knows that pretty soon, there will be tons of farmers competing against him to sell Honeycrisp. He'll be back in that Red Delicious world where he can't make a profit. Honeycrisp will just be this delicious commodity. Courtier realized - and this was really the final step in this story - that he needed to do more than find a delicious apple. He needed to figure out a way to keep that delicious apple to himself and maybe just a few selected other farmers.

COURTIER: I remember the specific discussion in which a number of us - it's like, well, what if, what if, what if? What if we did this? What if we did that?

CHARLES: What if, when we find the next great apple, a small group of us could control the supply of it? Make sure we grow enough to keep the supermarkets happy; not too many so the price doesn't crash; make sure the apple is handled well so that it's still good so shoppers still want to buy it.

GOLDSTEIN: And you might be able to do this with a patent, right? You can patent an apple. In fact, Bedford and the University of Minnesota had patented the Honeycrisp, but they let anybody who wanted to plant it; farmers just had to pay a small royalty. And anyway, more importantly, a patent lasts for 20 years, which, in a business where it takes five years or more just to grow a tree, is not that long. By the time Honeycrisp was really taking off, its patent was expiring.

CHARLES: Then Courtier and his friends looked around, and they saw something interesting. A clever Australian company had gone beyond patents. They had gotten a trademark on the name Pink Lady for their apples. That's Pink Lady with a little TM for trademark. Unlike a patent, a trademark never expires. You give an apple a name, you trademark that name, and then you get to decide forever who gets to grow and who gets to sell apples under that name.

GOLDSTEIN: Courtier and his friends wanted to do that, but they needed a new apple. About 10 years ago, they found it. They found it at that same orchard run by David Bedford at the University of Minnesota. And Courtier, this time, he talked Bedford and the university into trademarking that apple. They call it SweeTango. It's just one T, S-W-E-E-T-A-N-G-O.

CHARLES: TM.

GOLDSTEIN: Only 45 farmers are allowed to grow it.

COURTIER: We have just shy of a million trees in the ground, and it's going quite well. It's a great apple. We grow more and sell more of them every year. And, you know, we're trying to figure out how quickly we can ramp it up.

CHARLES: If you're an apple grower and you are not part of the SweeTango growing club, well, go find another club. There are a lot of so-called club apples now being grown arriving in the grocery stores.

GOLDSTEIN: And each one has a name more ridiculous than the last. Let's do a few of them.

CHARLES: Envy, Cosmic Crisp, Jazz, Kanzi, Lady Alice.

GOLDSTEIN: Opal, Pacific Rose, Pinata, RubyFrost, SnapDragon (laughter).

CHARLES: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And that is not even the end of the list. One little detail - it's only the name that's trademarked. So even if you're not in the club, you can grow the apple. You just can't use the name. Pro tip - if you see Pink Lady and Crips Pink in the same store, just buy whichever one's cheaper because they're the same apple.

GOLDSTEIN: All these apples with their ridiculous names are brands. Each apple is a brand. And you could imagine a future where saying, hey, can you pick me up some apples sounds as ridiculous as saying, hey, can you pick me up a six pack of cola? You don't say cola. You say Coke or Pepsi. The brand is the thing.

CHARLES: Tim Byrnes used to run the promotional campaign for the SweeTango apple. And he says apples now will be like every other item in the grocery store. They will have their own brands. They will have their own marketing teams, their own advertising blitzes.

TIM BYRNES: It is going to be a world of managed brands just like the soup aisle or the potato chip aisle or any other aisle. This is what it's going to be going forward.

GOLDSTEIN: There's something a little sad about this. Even apples, you know, this basic, natural thing, are now in the world of brands and advertising and marketing.

CHARLES: But all that is driving people to create and sell really good apples. So if you really like apples and you're willing to pay for a really great, delicious, new apple, you can now find them. And you know what? If you don't want to pay more, you can still get Red Delicious.

GOLDSTEIN: You can always email us at planetmoney@npr.org. You can tweet at us - @planetmoney. You can tweet at me - @jacobgoldstein. Dan Charles, are you on Twitter?

CHARLES: I am @nprDanCharles.

GOLDSTEIN: Our story today was produced by Jess Jiang and Nadia Wilson. And finally, if you're looking for another great podcast, check out Snap Judgment with Glynn Washington. It's an hour-long show of real stories about real people. You can find it on the NPR One app. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

CHARLES: And I'm Dan Charles. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET THING")

TWIN PEAKS: (Singing) Such a sweet, sweet thing. You've got me shook up. There's women every single way I look, but you're the only one that's got me hooked. You got me hooked.

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