People in your neighborhood: James Luby

By Gwen Willems

What are the characteristics of a good apple breeder?

Professor James Luby, an expert in fruit-crop breeding and genetics, told me, “Breeding any type of tree is a long-term endeavor—start young, be curious and stick with it!”

That’s exactly what Luby has done. Since being hired in 1982 by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science based on its St. Paul campus, Luby has contributed to the university’s ranking among the top three university-based apple-breeding programs in the nation. (The other two are Washington and Cornell).

Why is Minnesota so good?

Luby attributes it to cold weather and emphasizing the taste of a good apple.

“Our goal in apples has always been to deliver a wonderful eating experience for the consumer,” Luby said. “That involves a crisp, juicy texture and pleasing sweet-tart flavor.

“However, to be successful, a new variety also needs traits that make it profitable for a grower,” he added. “So, we are also selecting for good annual production, disease resistance, freedom from defects such as cracking, and ability for fruit to have excellent quality after weeks or months of refrigerated storage.”

Luby’s interest in genetics goes back to biology class in high school. He also worked on his uncle’s farm in the summers. Upon starting college at the University of Wisconsin, he landed his first job there with an oats breeder but developed an allergy to oats, so looked at other interesting crops.

Luby’s job includes teaching horticulture classes and leading the team breeding apples, grapes and berries at the Horticultural Research Center at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, where the university orchards are located.

Under Luby’s direction, the fruit-crops breeding program has introduced and commercialized 27 cultivars of apples, wine grapes, blueberries, strawberries and other fruits.

The results of the university’s 115-year-old apple-breeding program include the introduction of Honeycrisp, SweeTango, Zestar!, First Kiss, McIntosh and Haralson, which was named after Charles Haralson, the first superintendent at the research center, then known as the Fruit Breeding Farm.

I have fond childhood memories of eating Haralson apples in delicious strudel, pies and other pastries made from the apples we grew in our backyard, about 15 miles west of the research center.

There are difficulties in doing this work in Minnesota.

“The weather is one of the biggest challenges but necessarily one we can do much about,” Luby said. “All kinds of weather conditions can affect the amount and quality of fruit—winter cold, drought, frost, hail and so forth. We can respond to some of these conditions and it is always good to see how our experimental selections respond to the various extremes.”

Climate change also brings challenges such as “selecting for later bloom to avoid spring frosts, ability to ripen fruit in hotter conditions and resistance to diseases that become more prevalent.”

There are many rewards in Luby’s work. “I have really enjoyed working with the graduate students to solve some of the mysteries of how genes control the traits for which we are breeding,” Luby said. He sometimes uses examples from the breeding programs to help students understand how new varieties help fruit growers offer higher quality fruit or improve food safety or environmental sustainability.

“Plant breeding students,” Luby said, “are often very interested in how the breeding of long-lived perennial crops like fruits that are directly consumed by people contrasts with the breeding of annual grain crops that are usually processed for human consumption or used for industrial products.”

Asked what he would like to see in the future, Luby said, “I think that apples will have a more interesting assortment of flavors combined with the crisp, juicy texture that people seem to love.

“New apple varieties will also need to require less labor, since that is becoming a critical limiting factor in production. This will mean more efficient harvest—perhaps even machine harvest—and tree growth habits that minimize the amount of time needed for pruning.”

Although the Horticultural Research Center does not offer tours, the arboretum has a relatively new exhibit area—a modern orchard with all the varieties from the university over the years.

Luby also encourages people to stop by the arboretum’s AppleHouse to see and buy different varieties. It is located 1.5 miles west of the Arboretum’s main entrance on Highway 5 and is open from September through December. 

Gwen Willems lives in Falcon Heights and is a Bugle freelance writer.

1 Response

  1. James Luby

    A correction: the University of Minnesota did not introduce McIntosh. It is a heritage variety from Canada.

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