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Why the Red Delicious No Longer Is
As an industry, "we weren't consistent with the eating quality, and fairly soon, that erodes the base," said Gip Redman, manager of field services for the Holtzinger Fruit Co., a major packer and shipper based in Yakima, Wash.
Washington growers are seeking to spring back with intensively planted orchards of more lucrative varieties, better storage practices and new marketing strategies, including an emphasis on organic fruit. But if the future for growers in the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys looks brighter, the fate of the Red Delicious appears bleaker.
"You are sort of writing an obituary," said Calhoun, whose orchard grew hundreds of heirloom varieties that defined an age in which apples were regional and seasonal, with only a few strains suited to keeping to January. Now, the globalization of agriculture and high-tech storage give the consumer apples 12 months a year.
Dozens of strains of Red Delicious have been developed by breeders since the original appeared in Madison County, Iowa, though only a handful are widely used. Redman says the industry has moved to make Red Delicious more consistently high in quality, "but once you lose that shelf space, I don't think you get that back. The consumer wants a choice."
The decline of one of the most widely grown apples in history is momentous to observers like Calhoun. Unlike, say, the McIntosh, a wildling that made its way into commerce slowly, the Red Delicious was groomed for stardom from birth.
In the 1880s, a mail-order nurseryman named Clarence Stark held a competition to find an apple to replace the Ben Davis, a variety grown extensively in orchards from Pennsylvania to Missouri. At the same time, Jesse Hiatt, a farmer in Peru, Iowa, was trying to interest nurseries in buying and propagating a seedling he had raised and named the Hawkeye. Stark bit, so to speak, paid Hiatt for the rights, and then renamed the seedling the Delicious as a marketing ploy. When Stark's successors, in a similar stunt, found and named the Golden Delicious growing in West Virginia in 1914, the Delicious became Red Delicious.
At the end of the 19th century, a group of young and forward-thinking entrepreneurs settled in Washington state knowing that the high valley slopes would produce optimum conditions to grow apples on a massive scale, which could be shipped by railroad to eastern markets. At first, they relied on a storage apple called Winesap but in the 20th century developed a liking for the Red Delicious.
Its dominance was secured by the breeding of smaller, more productive trees in the 1940s and the advent of controlled-atmosphere storage in the 1960s.
Apart from its keeping qualities, the Red Delicious was a variety Washington growers loved because they could raise it better than orchardists in other states. The abundant sunshine and cool nights of the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys produced a fruit that was far redder and elongated and more distinctively lobed than Jesse Hiatt's Hawkeye, which was rounder and yellow-green with only a modest amount of red blushing and striping.
In spite of the wholesale replanting with other varieties, Redman of Holtzinger Fruit can't imagine a Washington landscape without reds.
"It's still a good eating apple and a very popular one. This is the best place in the world to grow Red Delicious, so we'll never do away with it," he said.
Stemilt Growers' Pepperl agrees, saying that "everything gets better or goes away, and I think it's going to get better. It's one of prettiest apples we have, it's got a long history and it's high in antioxidants."
Calhoun, the apple historian, is not as sure. "You could live a lifetime and never see a Ben Davis these days." The Red Delicious "is an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out."
That view is borne out at the Brookville Super Market in Chevy Chase, where manager Sidney Hersh offers Red Delicious at 20 cents a pound cheaper than Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Gala varieties but sees the others outselling it by as much as 2 to 1.
"People want something better," he said. "I would say in the past couple of years, something has changed."