Breeder portrait of Niklaus Bolliger
“I dream of delicious dessert apples that are crunchy and juicy and have a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Of course they also have to be suitable for storage and have the right appearance”, is how Niklaus Bolliger, who was born in 1955 and is a bio-dynamic farmer and
graduate of agricultural engineering, describes his vision. Over the years he found by experience that such fruits can only be produced by using a lot of plant protection measures with the existing apple varieties. He wanted to change that!
The Path to Breeding
Bolliger was already interested in plants and the inheritance of certain properties as a child in his parents’ garden, and while studying at ETH Zurich, he attended basic lectures on plant breeding. After completing his studies, he moved from his native Switzerland and worked in Bavaria for a few months in Georg Willhelm Schmidt’s bio-dynamic grain breeding oraganization, and then went on to work on vegetable seed propagation at Ilmar Randuja on Lake Geneva. In 1985, Niklaus Bolliger and his wife Regula took over Hof Rigi in Hessigkofen near Solothurn.
They switched from conventional to bio-dynamic farming to enable them to engage in direct marketing of their own products. In order to be able to supplement their range with fruit, they leased two orchards with different types of apples and some pears in 1996. “We discovered that you could only grow the existing varieties of dessert fruit with regular use of pesticides such as copper and sulfur.” This contradicted our bio-dynamic convictions and ultimately led to the decision which would change everything: “We have to take a much more radical approach, we have to breed varieties that are suitable for organic farming!”
Healthy Apples – a Challenge!
Plant protection is an extreme challenge in fruit growing. The elementary building block is the fight against apple scab (Venturia inaequalis), a fungal disease that can appear on the fruits but above all it affects the leaves and weakens the tree to such an extent that there is a risk of complete crop failure. For some years now Marssonina leaf blight has also had a dramatic impact in some cases.
In order to find varieties that are tolerant to these diseases and thus require the use of pesticides only in exceptional cases, Bolliger generally selects his seedlings without any pesticide measures. Another important breeding goal are apples which are suitable for storage so that they can be sold throughout the winter.
A Pioneer of Organic Apple Breeding
“It was a lot of hard work to figure out how to breed fruit myself, there was hardly anything about it in the literature. At that time there was only one bio-dynamic fruit grower, Mart Vadewall in the Netherlands. I was in loose contact with him,” the farmer looks back. At about 20 years, the breeding of fruit is even more time-consuming than the average breeding of new vegetable varities.
It takes five years for a tree to bear fruit. In 1999 the time had come: Bolliger sowed his own apple pips for the first time, and the first fruits were harvested in 2004. Initially he had to look after his fruit trees after work and on Sundays, in addition to the rest of the farm work. “It soon became clear that if I wanted to continue, I would need a lot more time and had to get financial support,” remembers the breeder.
Foundation of Poma Culta
This led him to set up the Poma Culta association in 2004. With the help of the association, donations could be collected, which made further work and intensification of the work possible. “Little by little, I used more and more of the vegetable growing area on our farm to grow apples. It almost led to a family crisis,” says the breeder with a smile.
At the right moment, in 2007, a neighboring farmer retired and offered Bolliger three hectares of land for sale – the area on which apple cultivation takes place today. With the support of the energetic association members of Poma Culta, project applications were written and several, partly interest-free, loans were acquired, allowing them to buy the land in the end.
Collapse of Resistance
In the meantime, 17 years have passed in which Bolliger continued his research and crossed more than 30 different apple varieties in order to tease out good properties. “In terms of resistance, I was at a very good level in 2012/13 but the resistance of my parent strains was based on a single resistance gene.
When the fungus mutated, resistance collapsed worldwide, and hit my apples in 2013. Fortunately, among my breeding lines there were several with broad, polygenic resistance. These form the basis of my current candidate varieties”, as Bolliger tells.
Promising Breeding Successes
In 2015, six candidate varieties had reached the stage where we could apply for external variety testing of the trees. “In 2017 we tested 20 trees from each of these lines on six farms in different European fruit-growing regions, in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. This valuable network was created in cooperation with the specialist group for bio-dynamic fruit growing in Europe, in which Bolliger is active. In 2020, the trees in most places produced the first major yield.
The line with the No. 1399 has shown itself to be particularly promising. Poma Culta is planning to carry out even larger-scale trials with four farms with the aim of bringing it to the market as a new organic variety. “Registering a new apple variety in Europe is time-consuming and associated with high costs, so we have to thoroughly investigate its suitability for cultivation and also the sales opportunities beforehand,” the breeder points out.
Commercial Project in View
A single-variety apple tree must always be propagated vegetatively. It consists of a (neutral) base, i.e. a small tree onto which a scion of the desired variety is grafted. The next test trees will be produced by a Dutch nursery with grafts from Poma Culta. The grafting should take place in August 2021. If everything goes as planned, the trees will be ready for planting at the four fruit growers involved in 2023. In 2025, the first apples should go to interested trading partners who have already been lined up.
bioverita will support this process of market introduction and advertise the need for varieties from organic breeding under the label “Organic right from the start”. Bolliger is convinced that the label can help with communication and dissemination of the new apple variety – or maybe even more than just the one. The breeder is optimistic. He has come very close to his vision of tasty and robust organically grown apples.
Photo credits: 1, 2, 4 bioverita; 3, 5-7 Niklaus Bolliger