Anh Vu

September 27, 2019

Apple Picking and Pomology: The Science Behind Apple Growing

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This past Monday marked the transition from summer to fall, which means Halloween, Thanksgiving, crisp leaves, hayrides, pumpkins and most importantly: apples!

The 37th Annual Downtown Ithaca Apple Harvest Festival will be taking place from Sept. 27 to  29. Well-attended each year and beloved by Ithaca residents, the Apple Fest is a fall hit thanks to pomology — the science of fruit production.

Prof. Gregory Peck, integrative plant science, who has done research on sustainable fruit production and hard cider production, explained the science behind apple growing. According to him, pomologists can study many different issues, ranging from increasing the nutritional value of fruits to assessing an ecosystem’s effects on fruit production.

“There’s a lot of different sub-disciplines within the field of pomology. It’s a lot of fun — it tends to be very interdisciplinary. I work a lot with people who study diseases, insects, soil, and food science, and I get to interact with them on a very regular basis,” Peck said.

For apples specifically, pomologists can also study the flowering habits of apple trees and how to increase the yields of apple orchards.

Peck said pomology is essential for a healthy human diet because fruits provide fiber, antioxidants and a significant amount of vitamins and minerals, and these are all necessary for a healthy human diet.

“We’re always looking at ways of making sure that fresh fruits are widely available to consumers, and that’s why we study pomology,” Peck said.

Peck said that apples, which are deciduous fruit, break dormancy in the spring when they flower. It then takes most of the summer for them to develop and reach a desirable size. Finally, they start to ripen in early August. This continues up until early November, but the majority of them are harvested in late September and early October.

According to Peck, there are over 10,000 apple cultivars, and each one has their own set of properties that make them unique. One example is Cornell’s newest apple, the Snap Dragon.

“The plant breeders at Cornell can look at those different attributes and try to create more flavorful apples through genetics, with both traditional breeding and newer genetic techniques as well,” Peck said.

Peck explained that weather significantly impacts the quality of the Snap Dragon.

“When we have sunny days […] and cool nights like we’ve been having for the past couple weeks, the anthocyanins (colors) develop well in the peel of the fruit, and the flavors are really increased under those conditions. The specific weather that we have within any given year can affect the quality of the fruit as well,” Peck explained.

Apples are currently still harvested by hand but, according to Peck, robots will likely play a major role in harvesting in the future.

“The technology is getting better and better, and I suspect that within a decade, a lot of our apples are going to be robotically harvested,” Peck predicted.

According to Peck, apples have immense genetic potential and are adaptable to a wide range of climates. This allows for them to be grown in many different places that each develop their own horticultural techniques for growing apples locally.

“We have apples growing in New York, but apples are also growing in regions in the eastern U.S. all the way down to North Carolina. There’s actually even apple production in countries that are subtropical, such as Mexico and India, where they grow the apples at high elevation,” Peck said.

Although many enjoy eating apples as they are, apples are also widely used for cider production. Fermented cider, better known as hard cider, has grown tremendously in the United States. According to Peck, it’s made when sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast, in a process similar to wine production.

“[This] is probably one of the new, exciting parts of the apple industry, is that people now are growing apples for the cider industry. Cider has become a beverage that can hold its own against other drinks such as wine and beer,” Peck said.

Along with being grown commercially, apples are also grown in backyards and community gardens. Peck explained that to successfully grow apples this way, trees that have a genetic resistance to specific diseases must be planted.

“There is actually a gene that was brought into a breeding population at Cornell from another apple species called Malus floribunda, and they were able to bring a gene into the domesticated apple through traditional breeding practices that make that tree resistant to apple scab, which is the most serious fungal disease of apples in our climate,” Peck said.