GOODBYE, Red Delicious. Hello, Fuji, Mutsu, Akane, and more? The popularity of America's No. 1 apple has probably peaked, say several apple growers. Consumers are looking for apples with more flavor and texture, rather than perfect, bright-red specimens like Red Delicious. Growers, meanwhile, want varieties that keep longer, stay crisper, and are easier to grow.
``The whole apple industry is in transition,'' says Doug Roberts, a marketing specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. ``We're growing more different varieties than ever, and consumers want diversity as well as more flavor,'' he says.
Diversity has long been a trademark of Massachusetts apple growers like David Cheney, a fourth-generation orchardist who grows 35 varieties of apples on an 80-acre orchard about 75 miles west of Boston. It was started in 1911 by his great-grandfather, William Cheney.
Visitors to Cheney's Orchards can pick their own apples, or collect a mixed bag of five or more varieties from 15-bushel bins in the salesroom: McIntosh, Macoun (pronounced Muh-COW-en), Cortland, Spencer, Milton-McIntosh, Empire, Akane (uh-KAHN-ee), and others are available according to season. There are peaches, pears, apple products, herb teas, jellies, jams, and free apple recipes, too.
When he has time, owner David Cheney likes to drive visitors through the orchard in his red Model A fire truck. His wife, Vickie, and her mother, Betty Heino, recently joined Mr. Cheney and a reporter for a drive over pastures filled with trees loaded with fruit - row upon row, as far as the eye could see.
``Down close to the water of the pond on the left, we have three sour cherry trees, and here's a white peach tree, a very old one. ...We have a few blue prune-plums and several kinds of pears,'' Cheney explains. ``But apples are our main crop. These are McIntosh and Red Delicious trees, and some Cortlands, which are my favorite apple.
``Here's a plot of high-density planting - two years old and over 6 feet tall,'' he continues. ``We have about 2,000 trees of McIntosh, Cortland, and Macoun - all in high-density, close planting.''
As the old fire engine turns a corner, we look down on rows of Golden Delicious trees: The apples look like gold Christmas ornaments against the green leaves.
Now we're coming to some newer varieties. ``It takes a long time to get to know an apple tree - 8 to 10, maybe 12 years,'' Cheney says. ``Without the experience of at least three fruiting seasons, you can't begin to understand pruning and thinning or when to harvest for best flavor and storage.''
Apple trees don't begin to bear fruit for about three years after being planted, depending on the variety.
``Here's another apple,'' says Cheney, ``the Mutsu'' (pronounced moot-soo). ``It has a flavor that improves in storage,'' he says, picking an apple for us to taste. The Mutsu, a large green apple with a yellow blush, is a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Japanese variety called Indo. Sometimes called Crispin, it has an almost spicy flavor that improves in storage.
``Around about February it will be mellow and delicious at its best,'' Cheney says. He has about 1,000 to 1,200 Mutsu trees - some of them planted 25 years ago by his father. (Apples with Japanese names may seem new to most consumers, but this one has been available here for years.)
``The Macoun is another of our finest, with a superb flavor,'' Cheney says. A medium-sized apple, flushed red to brownish-red over a light yellow background, it's a McIntosh type, crisp with white flesh, juicy, sweet, and aromatic.
The Fuji, the No. 1 apple in Japan, is being grown in California and Washington now. It needs a longer growing season than is usually possible in the Northeast. A pale-red to yellow-green apple with red highlights to nearly solid red, the Fuji is aromatic and crispy with an excellent sweet flavor. Cheney has a few Fuji trees.
The quirky growing habits of apples and their sensitivity to climate are two reasons why there are more than 1,000 varieties in the United States. Many are grown only in one region because of the climate or the differing lengths of the growing seasons. This year, the US apple crop is expected to be 9.7 billion pounds - over 40 pounds (approximately 120 apples) per person.
In spite of all the hullabaloo about new varieties, dozens of noteworthy older varieties have persevered. Cheney's Orchards includes Milton, Paulared, Vistabelle, Idared, Red and Golden Delicious, Melrose, Gala, Jerseymac, Tydeman Red, and Russet.
``My father had lots of foresight and planted some wonderful trees,'' says Cheney. ``My father and grandfather loved apples and they were both good apple salesmen as well as growers. I love to sell apples, too,'' he says. ``I write my own ads so they're truthful and timely.''
APPLES are kind of a family affair for the Cheneys. Mrs. Cheney, a home economist who loves to cook, has created many apple recipes. The three children help in the salesrooms and orchards, and Maureen, David's mother who lives on the farm, has contributed much to the orchard over the years.
``People are getting used to appreciating the difference in apples,'' Cheney says. ``Farmers' markets have done a good job in getting our fresh apples to city people, but we need to do more apple vending. Fresh apples should be available everywhere for people who want something fresh as a snack - at athletic events and at airports. I'm sure that as we find ways to make fresh apples more available, people will be eating four or five times as many apples as they are today.''