KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This next story is about the huge launch for a new kind of apple and the gamble that goes with it. It's called Cosmic Crisp. And farmers in Washington state who grow more than half of the country's apples are planting this variety by the millions. It'll show up in stores in a few years. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Scott McDougall is one of those farmers who's betting on Cosmic Crisp, a deep red apple with tiny yellow freckles.
SCOTT MCDOUGALL: It goes back to believing in the apple.
CHARLES: And you believe?
MCDOUGALL: I believe (laughter).
CHARLES: He started planting the trees right here near the town of Wenatchee. A slow-moving tractor slices open the bare earth, and two men carefully lower delicate tree roots into the opening - one tree every 3 feet.
MCDOUGALL: I've got somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 Cosmic Crisp trees on order.
CHARLES: Across the state, farmers have ordered 12 million trees, enough to deliver about 5 million 40-pound boxes of Cosmic Crisp apples to grocery stores.
MCDOUGALL: Getting 5 million boxes right away, that's never happened with any other variety that we've ever planted in Washington State.
CHARLES: My big question is, why? Is it that great, or is there something else going on?
MCDOUGALL: Well, I think the apple, of course, is very good.
CHARLES: But there are plenty of other reasons, too. A lot of apple farmers in Washington have been looking for a new variety to grow. The apples they've relied on for decades have fallen out of favor with American consumers.
MCDOUGALL: Red Delicious is in decline. Golden Delicious is in decline.
CHARLES: But other varieties have problems, too. Honeycrisp, which consumers love, is difficult to grow. Many other hot new varieties like Opal or Jazz are only available to small clubs of growers. Cosmic Crisp, though, is available to every farmer in Washington State. The tree is strong. The apple tastes great. You harvest it at the same time as Red Delicious.
MCDOUGALL: You've kind of got the best of all worlds.
CHARLES: The man who's listed on a patent as the inventor of Cosmic Crisp drove five hours from Canada to see these trees go into the ground. His name is Bruce Barritt. And he takes pictures of the newly planted trees like a proud parent.
BRUCE BARRITT: They are my children, just like your kids who are 18 years old, we don't know a lot about them yet. Four years from now, we'll know whether this is the real thing.
CHARLES: Two decades ago, Bruce Barritt was working for Washington State University. And he convinced the university and the state's apple growers to pay for an effort to create new and tastier apple varieties.
BARRITT: We knew it would be about 20 years before we had anything that was of any significance if we were lucky, if things worked out.
CHARLES: He started breeding apples. He took pollen from the blossoms of some trees and fertilized the blossoms of others, creating thousands of new genetic combinations. He collected the apples from those trees, growing new little trees from their seeds. Then, he watched those trees produce their own apples, all different from each other.
BARRITT: Some green ones, some yellow ones, some red ones, some little ones, some big ones.
CHARLES: Bruce Barritt doesn't remember the day in 1997 when he took a bite of an apple from the tree that was labeled WA 38. But it must have made a good impression because he and his colleagues kept it around. It's still here, actually. Barritt took me to see it in a research orchard near Wenatchee. It's surrounded by rows of young seedlings.
BARRITT: Can you see the only old tree around? (Laughter) There's the mother tree of Cosmic Crisp.
CHARLES: Every one of the millions of Cosmic Crisp trees growing right now is a clone of this one tree. Barritt and his colleagues duplicated at the old-fashioned way - cutting buds from its branches and splicing those buds, grafting them onto existing apple tree roots. The buds grew into new WA 38 trees.
For the last two decades, people in the apple industry have been studying those trees, tasting the apples. And the more they learned about it, the more they liked it. Tom Auvil, who worked for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, says when they took boxes of different varieties to events with apple growers, it was the box of WA 38 or WAH38 (ph) that got cleaned out.
TOM AUVIL: And this happened every year that we never bring any WA 38 home.
CHARLES: Auvil says this apple has that crisp cracking sensation when you bite into it. It has sweetness and acid, almost a sensory overload for your tongue. They named it Cosmic Crisp because somebody thought the speckles of yellow looked like stars in the sky. They finally released it this year for farmers in Washington State to plant in their own orchards.
For now, it's only available to farmers in Washington. After all, they helped pay to create it. And the flood of orders has astonished almost everyone in the industry. In fact, it's provoking some anxiety because after all, consumers have not even seen Cosmic Crisp yet. Nobody knows if they'll like it.
AUVIL: I just hope that somebody doesn't drive up my driveway and say, you got me into this, now get me out of it (laughter).
CHARLES: Years from now, when stores are full of Cosmic Crisp apples, they'll find out whether this was a smart bet. Dan Charles, NPR News, Wenatchee.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORNERSHOP SONG, "SLEEP ON THE LEFT SIDE")