Illinois' link to global apple production a sweet story

Jefferson County native bred apple rootstock that would resist diseases and insects and produce dwarf fruit trees adapted to the North American environment.

Liberty Apple Orchard 8_16-60

By Kay Shipman

An apple rootstock breeding program with Illinois roots now impacts apple production around the world. A Jan. 11 breakout session at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference in Springfield’s Crowne Plaza will focus on the start of the Geneva rootstock breeding program.

Today, Geneva rootstock helps apple growers with disease and insect challenges in such diverse locales as western Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Brazil. “It’s really exciting,” said James “Jim” Cummins, Ph.D., professor emeritus Cornell University, one of the original researchers along with his partner, Herb Aldwinckle, Ph.D.

Cummins, a Jefferson County native, and his son, Steve, will discuss fruit production during the Specialty Crops Conference. Steve Cummins operates Cummins Nursery, Ithaca, N.Y., and has a U-pick orchard of dwarf apple trees. The younger Cummins will discuss the Geneva rootstocks in the nursery and availability of trees on the Geneva series.

Jim Cummins recalled the 22-foot straight ladders in apple orchards of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. In New York, he saw the ravages of fire blight in dwarf apple test orchards. That led him and Aldwinckle to find a solution by breeding apple rootstock that would resist diseases and insects – and produce dwarf fruit trees adapted to the North American environment.

Little did the researchers know their work would influence apple production around the world. 

The Specialty Crops Conference starts at 10 a.m., Jan. 10, with preconference workshops. The event continues through Jan. 12. In addition to a general session, participants may attend numerous breakout sessions on fruits, vegetables, herbs, organic, emerging issues and agritourism and marketing.

The conference early registration deadline is Sunday. For conference details or to register online, visit specialtygrowers.org/iscaoc-conference.html.

Registration fees for preconference workshops, including lunch, are $35 for Specialty Grower members and $45 for nonmembers.

Advance registration for the conference is $65 for members and $75 for nonmembers. The onsite registration fee increases $15 for both members and nonmembers, but does not guarantee a lunch. Thursday evening banquet tickets cost $20 each in advance and $30 at the door. 

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