Two new apple varieties, Snapdragon and Ruby Frost, are being harvested and sold for the first time at Dressel Farms in New Paltz. The apple varieties were developed by Cornell University’s Agricultural Research Department and then grown and tested by several New York apple-growers. Although the first trees were planted in 2011, they had to get to a level of maturity before they could be harvested, which began this past month with the Snapdragons and approximately three weeks ago with the Ruby Frosts, much to the pleasure of the growers and their farmstand customers.
“The Snapdragons have been at the stand a little longer and are getting great reviews,” said Rod Dressel Jr., who spoke with the New Paltz Times along with his son Tim Dressel. The Snapdragons have a Honeycrisp parent in their genetic makeup, so those who love the crispy, sweet, juicy Honeycrisps typically enjoy the new Snapdragons. The Ruby Frost has a McIntosh parent, “so if you like Macouns and McIntosh, you’ll probably enjoy Ruby Frost,” said Dressel.
While the apples have catchy names and a crisp, sweet, delicious taste, there is a big backstory on how they came to be and how they will be grown, harvested and protected by the recently formed New York Apple-Growers’ (NYAG) Association.
Dressel explained that, in the global world of apple-growing, there is a trend of private breeding programs creating new varieties and then having those varieties “managed” by a specific “club” of growers or wholesalers that is not accessible to all. “There are varieties like Sweet Tango or Jazz that only certain growers can grow and certain retailers can sell. If you’re not in the club, you can’t grow them.”
This is happening in Washington and in areas throughout the world. Here in New York, a big apple-growing state, the Cornell University Research Department, whose main experimental station is located in Geneva, has been doing traditional plant-breeding for many years. It came up with New York’s signature apple, the Empire, back in the 1950s. Its scientists also crossbred some popular varieties to create the Red Delicious and McIntosh. The difference is that, once the Research Department felt that the apples were ready to go, it would issue a general release to the public, so that anyone could grow them and they would charge no royalties or fees.
As Dressel explains, with the recent “economic downturn, Cornell’s Agricultural Research Department has been cut significantly. In fact, it’s down to two people: Dr. Susan Brown and an associate. Federal and state funding is drying up and these two are the entire Research Department now!”
True to their mission, they continued to plant thousands and thousands of trees, testing different breeds, throwing out most and working with the strongest candidates. Once they had a half-dozen varieties that they felt could be “keepers,” they called in New York growers to do a taste test and let them know what they thought. Snapdragon and Ruby Frost, known as NY1 and NY2 until they received their birth names this August, created the most buzz amongst growers.
“They selected a few that they thought had some really good characteristics and asked if we’d like to plant them and see how they do,” said Dressel, noting that “we” included various growers throughout the state. A consensus grew among farmers who had planted and tasted the new cultivars that the Snapdragon and Ruby Frost were the two standout varieties.
According to Dressel, some of these growers, “realizing Cornell’s financial situation and the real potential these two apples had, formed the New York Apple-Growers, LLC to obtain the exclusive rights to these breeds and put money back into the research program. They opened it up to all New York apple-growers, which numbers approximately 700; and 160 growers joined, our farm included.”
The way it works is that growers pay a royalty per acre to be part of this company, as well as a royalty for every tree. That money goes back into the organization to promote, market and sell the apples, and a percentage goes back to Cornell University’s Research Department.
The Dressel family planted two acres of Snapdragon and three acres of Ruby Frost in 2011. The first two years they defruited them to give the young trees a chance to grow taller and stronger. “This is the first harvest ever of these two varieties and NYAG realized we wouldn’t have enough to sell to chain stores. So they decided that the apples would only be sold at participating growers’ farmstands, or to direct marketers that are in the group who sell to farm markets and greenmarkets in the City.” The hope is to create a groundswell of demand for the apples, so that each year their popularity increases with the yield that the farmers are able to harvest.
According to the NYAG website, there are only two participating apple farms in Ulster County that are growing and selling Snapdragon and Ruby Frost: Dressel Farms and Hurd Farms in Clintondale.
While the varieties are causing a great buzz among apple-lovers, as they offer a whole new flavor, texture, color and crispiness, what goes into growing them is really a window into the future of apple-growing. Dressel took the New Paltz Times on a tour to see the three-year-old trees and the acres of recently planted Snapdragon and Ruby Red trees. Unlike the Hallmark umbrella trees, where there’s a girl on a ladder with a basket picking apples, these trees will be smaller, thinner, taller and planted much closer together.
They’re planted approximately four-feet apart and 12-feet wide by row, attached to bamboo rods that are part of a post fence that supports the trees with an irrigation system that runs along the base of the tree roots.
“It’s a lot of investment up front, because we have to pay the royalties, put in this elaborate support system and irrigation and then surround the orchards with deer fence to protect them,” he explained. “But the hope is that if we continue to sculpt the trees by taking off the bigger limbs, stretching the limbs out and not up, that more sunlight will get to the fruit, the yield will be much more and the amount of trees per acre will also increase that yield.”
The entire science of growing is what Dressel finds to be interesting. “We learn something new every day. These are not easy trees to grow: It takes a lot of horticulture knowledge, experimenting and luck. But so far the apples have been great.”
To get your first, exclusive taste of Snapdragon or Ruby Frost, head out to Dressel’s farmstand or Hurd’s in Clintondale before the growing season ends. “You won’t find these in any Stop & Shop or Hannaford supermarket — just at certain roadside farmstands and farm markets, which makes it kind of exciting,” said Dressel.