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The apple from heaven

Discovering Ambrosia apples was luck. 
Building them into one of the world’s 
favourite apples was anything but

Longtime apple producers in the B.C. interior, Sally and Wilfrid Mennell are becoming world celebrities — at least in the apple world — for discovering a chance seedling in their orchard that they have built into one of the favourite apple varieties on Earth.

How they did it proves once again that the most successful agricultural producers are part scientist, part entrepreneur, and all passion.

Wilfrid isn’t shy about admitting there was luck involved. There had to be luck. Every seed in every apple on every tree is a lucky combination of DNA with the potential to grow into a tree unlike any other.

But then, the likelihood that any random combination of genes will score high in each and every essential apple trait — in other words that it will not only produce a perfectly crunchy, heavenly sweet, blushingly tempting apple but that it will also be easy to grow, hold well in storage, and appeal to producers — is about the same as the odds of your child being the next Beethoven, Einstein and Churchill all in one.

Wilfrid also willingly admits that it seems that fate also played a lead role. If this magical seedling had somehow emerged just a foot to the left or right, our story would have been chopped up by the blades of a mower before it really got a chance to get started.

But, with luck and fate on their side, and hefty doses of persistence, vision and hope, Wilfrid and Sally became the self-confessed “parents” to an apple that’s making enormous inroads with consumers and growers alike.

That “Ambrosia” — the food of the gods in Greek mythology — is the name they chose for their fledgling variety illustrates both Wilfrid’s poetic bent, and just how much confidence they have in their apple.

The pickers knew first

Despite having told and retold their story at grower meetings, industry events and consumer fairs, the Mennells are eager to recount Ambrosia’s history to me. “You start telling it, Wilfrid, and I’ll interrupt you when you’re wrong,” says Sally, serving up wide slices of a decadent cake she’s baked in honour of the occasion.

“Well,” says Wilfrid, leaning forward with obvious enthusiasm, “the early story of Ambrosia apples wasn’t about creating or discovering them, it was a really a process of becoming aware…”

In 1987, the Mennells replaced an orchard block of mixed apple and plum trees with the newly popular Jonagold variety of apples. About this same time, a single seed of unknown origin sprouted unnoticed among the recently planted trees.

For those unfamiliar with orcharding, fruit trees are grown by grafting a bud of the desired variety onto nursery-grown rootstock. This kind of asexual reproduction ensures that every tree produces identical fruit. Self-seeded saplings are wild-cards and are usually chopped out like any other weed.

“This sapling was a product of negligence. It should have been removed,” admits Wilfrid. “But, it was in line with the new row we had planted, which is the only reason it was allowed to get to the point that it produced fruit.”

In 1990, the young tree bore its first apples. The hired fruit pickers, who turned their noses up at all but the very best tasting fruit, stripped the sapling bare and gobbled every apple. The Mennells were intrigued.

“They liked it, so we knew there had to be a reason,” explains Wilfrid. “But at first, it was just a curiosity.”

When the pickers again ate all the fruit the following year, Wilfrid and Sally wondered if there might be more to this sapling than they’d first thought. Adventurous at heart, Wilfrid and brother Robert decided to propagate the sapling by budding snippets of the tree onto rootstock in Robert’s nursery.

When the new trees bore their initial fruit two years later, the Mennells started getting excited. The budded trees had held true to variety and the resulting fruit was as memorably good as the pickers had promised. Ambrosia was born.

Putting the team together

While finding a new variety is one thing, successfully bringing it to market is quite another. Luckily, good timing proved again that it was one their side.

A generation ago, Canadian orchardists grew Golden and Red Delicious apples almost exclusively. Back then, the trees were grown huge, typically with 14-foot spacings between 75-year old trees. On average, apple orchards ran about 200 trees per acre.

In the mid 1980s, a new New Zealand variety called Royal Gala took the Canadian apple industry by storm. Consumers loved Galas and producers flocked to growing them. To ensure the fruit got its trademark rosy hue, the trees were grown small and very close together so every apple could face the sun.

This shift in growing technique was revolutionary. Suddenly, first crops could be harvested after three years instead of a decade of growth, tree rotation decreased to 15 years from 75 or more, and per-acre density multiplied from 200 to upwards of 1,500 trees.

Change was clearly underway. Energized by the success they’d enjoyed with Galas, growers in the late 1980s were — for the first time ever — suddenly eager to grow new varieties. “We were very fortunate (Ambrosia’s genesis) occurred at a time in the industry that very valuable new varieties were coming on stream. There was a certain excitement about new varieties and growers were willing to give them a try,” says Wilfrid. “The risk-takers had gambled and just won with Royal Galas, and they had the taste of winning.”

This was not the only piece of auspicious timing.

As the Mennells’ confidence in their new variety grew, they decided to approach several nurseries for help in developing it. “At the time, the nurseries that were propagating new varieties were mainly American. We approached one American nursery and they said ‘Yes, that’s very nice. If you want to give us your variety, we’ll let you know how it goes.’ That was just the way it was done,” says Wilfrid. But, giving up their Ambrosia to a nursery was not what Wilfrid and Sally had in mind. They wanted assistance in developing their apple, they weren’t looking to be removed outright from Ambrosia’s future. And, says Wilfrid, “We wanted there to be a Canadian component to this.”

Support from farmers

At just this time, a new variety development company was founded in Summerland B.C., just an hour away from the Mennell’s home. The Okanagan Plant Improvement Corporation (PICO) was created to manage the licensing of new varieties of tree fruits and berries, both domestically and internationally. It was a fit made in Greek heaven. Ambrosia gained a Canadian product development sponsor, and PICO gained a flagship product.

In 1993, PICO facilitated the registration of Ambrosia for plant breeder’s rights (the Canadian version of plant patenting), which includes enormous volumes of paperwork and much measuring and testing to ensure that the variety is in fact unique. Ambrosia passed with flying colours. Meantime, PICO solicited interested growers to test the variety up and down the Okanagan valley.

“We had no real expectations at that point. We registered it in order to protect it and to ensure that it had some consistent identity. If it had been released willy-nilly, it would never have gained traction in the market,” says Wilfrid.

By the early 1990s, the Mennell brothers were selling Ambrosias picked from their own trees to the local organic market. “Because there’s a more direct intimacy between farm and organic consumer, selling organic meant we could gauge the response from consumers.”

To the Mennells’ delight, that early consumer response was fantastic. Consumers bought initially because the product was unique, but came back for more because the apples — a heady combination of crunch, sweetness, juiciness and fragrance — sold themselves.

Equally important, support from growers was high from the start. When there was reluctance among B.C. packers and marketers to handle the first shipments of Ambrosia in the late 1990s, growers banded together and formed the New Varieties Development Council to advocate for the variety, support market development, and ensure that producers had a say in the crop’s future.

The council also helped find a way around a catch-22 that faces any new variety. As Wilfrid explains, “If you don’t have the volume of fruit, you can’t test the market. To test the market, you have to do a lot of promotion, but you can’t afford to do that unless you have a lot of growers and a lot of grower buy-in.” Luckily, the growers voluntarily took a levy of a dollar per 40-lb. carton to market the fruit. “It was grower-based momentum that got the variety established.”

“PICO initially envisaged this as a niche market apple,” says Sally. “There are so many characteristics necessary to move from a niche variety to a commercial variety: consistency, volume, appeal, grower friendliness. But this apple grows well in our climate, growers like growing it, and it really seems to have taken off.”

Today, Ambrosia is BC Treefruits’ “flagship variety,” says Wilfrid. “It’s become the signature variety that they’re known all over for.”

Ambrosia has a general release in Canada, which means any Canadian grower willing to pay the tree-based royalty can plant it. Internationally, PICO has sublicensed the variety to groups in various countries (where the growing sites are optimal for the growing of Ambrosia) including the US, New Zealand, Chile and the EU.

“Standing in New Zealand and looking at Ambrosia trees and knowing they come from this one mother tree on our farm was an amazing feeling,” says Sally. And, she adds, the feedback from consumers has been rewarding.

Wilfrid jumps in to relate his favourite international Ambrosia moment. A contestant on the Italian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” had to use all three lifelines when answering the question “What is an Ambrosia?”, which garnered, as Wilfrid crows, “10 full minutes of free publicity!”

“The thing that has been interesting is that there has been no road map,” says Sally. The variety “was born and now we’ve brought it up. We’ve been involved in every stage along the way, but it comes back to the fact that the apple has to be good enough to speak for itself.”

“There are times when it’s frustrating but it has been an extraordinary journey for us and a learning process for everyone involved.”

“Part of what it has involved is looking at ourselves and who we are,” adds Wilfrid. “At the end of the day, we are still orchardists.” CG

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