The first snowfall of winter this year coincided with the last pick of Pink Lady apples in Italy's Trentino district, where dramatic Dolomites soar above fertile valleys.
The Australian creation, Pink Lady, or Cripps Pink named after the West Australian department of of Agriculture researcher who created it, is a cross between another Aussie invention Lady Williams and the old favourite Golden Delicious.
A marketing coup now sees the brand recognised all over Europe with consumer awareness reaching a remarkable 80 per cent, according to online Italian agriculture publication freshplaza.it.
Take away the logo, however, and the apple is worth Buckleys.
"Consumers like Pink Lady apples," explains La Trentina co-op agronomist Ivan Caset. "But without the label, no. Marketing is critical."
All Pink Lady apples are marketed through another co-operative, VOG.
Of course agricultural production is key, with only prime specimens receiving the substantial premium.
Apples must exhibit a rosy red hue. Those that don't get enough light during development risk being harvested more yellow than pink and face a downgrade.
To lift production of premium fruit the co-operative three-four years ago began introducing another Cripps cross – Rosy Glow. Early results are encouraging. However, like the Pink Lady, unless it can be sold as a premium specimen and wears the branded label, you might as well turn it into strudel.
Fortunately, in this part of Italy – which was governed by Austria prior to World War One – strudel is a market favourite.
In the Adige Valley, that runs through Trento and Bolzano, Pink Lady production in Trentino-South Tirol represents about 600 ha of production. Italy grows more than half of Europe's contribution, across 2000ha, most of that in South Tyrol and in Emilia Romagna.
In Trentino district mountain grown Golden Delicious represents more than 40 per cent of the harvest, followed by Gala, Red Delicious and Fuji.
But prices for premium grown Pink Lady will bring 70 cents euro per kilo back to the grower, twice that of the best Golden Delicious. The flip side to this enticement is that second grade fruit finds an ordinary market with the price plummeting to 10c/kg.
So the Pink Lady grower must pay attention to detail, something that agronomists Ivan Caset and Andrea Taddia expect from their growers, who are members of the apple co-operative La Tentina.
Farmer owned agricultural co-operatives are very popular in Italy, where small land holders can benefit from working together.
In the Trentino district the average apple orchard is 2ha and individuals working outside the co-op system must produce the very best to survive, as the grip on secondary markets, like that controlled by La Grande Distribution Organisation, or GDO, would cruel any opportunity to recoup expenses.
The district's best grower, Vincenzo Vulcan, Azienda Maso Del Betta, upriver from Trento, is one such individual, but his Pink Lady production is typically 90 per cent 'premium', or 10 percent greater than the average grower with La Trentina, which records a figure 30 per cent higher than average European Pink Lady growers.
Modern techniques and sound agronomy play a critical role in prime production, with slender spindle trees planted on 700cm centres and supported with trellis wire.
Varieties of Fuji produced by the Mazzone Vivai nursery in Emilia Romagna are encouraged to grow two stems from the one rootstock (M9 and lately G11) which encourages less vegetation and more fruit.
Pink Lady trees grafted on the same rootstock only come with a single axis.
The soil tends slightly alkaline with a ph 7-8 and influenced by the calcium carbonate of the surrounding geology.
Twenty to 30 years ago most farmers were independent but the market can be tough and negotiating with the likes of GDO demoralising. Now they let the co-op deal with GDO while they get on with the job of farming, and attention to detail.
70 units of Nitrogen, 35 units phosphorous and 140 units potassium are added to municipal green waste compost at 2.5t/ha to provide nutrient. The compost has improved in quality in recent years and most growers use the product.
Apple scab is a problem in the spring, as it is everywhere, and Dithianon is sprayed to keep it under control. La Trentino agronomists are working with a new scab resistant variety called Lumaga Galant which is a Swiss cross between Resi and Delbard Jubilee. Galant requires half the amount of chemical control and these trees are being planted first and foremost near residential dwellings to appease concerned residents.
The most important factor in the production of Trentino apples is the fabulous micro-climate provided by the natural landscape.
In a normal year good soil moisture is good and a mild Mediterranean wind blows up towards the Dolomites from the south. Warm days and cool nights during the growing season produce crisp fruit with excellent sugar content and fungal disease is kept to a minimum.
This year was not normal, and Andrea says most seasons are no longer as they were.
In the past decade flowering has advanced a week earlier than before, putting germination at risk from late frost, as happened one night last spring – followed by a hail storm – which together reduced production in the district by an astounding 70 per cent. Mountains of unused harvest bins now rise above the landscape, waiting for next year.
Progressive growers with overhead irrigation survived frost damage by protecting their flowers with a fine mist of water. Those with nets lived through the hail. But growers in the higher valleys, like those at Caldonozzo south-east of Trento, where there is not enough water for overhead irrigation, suffered terribly. As it is with modern food production there is no market for ugly product. The frost damage was only cosmetic, but consumers alienated from the world of agriculture refuse to spend money on damaged goods.
Northern Italy has been in the business of producing apples since at least the 16th century, when couriers from the Adige valley brought fresh and preserved fruits to the courts of the Austrian and Russian monarchs.
Throughout the district the previous winter was mild and Mediterranean fruit fly was an unusual issue for alpine growers. Compounding this was a dry summer which only suited those with overhead or micro irrigation.
One positive out of this climate conundrum was that the dry months from July through October meant growers did not need to spray for fungal disease for a remarkable 60 days prior to harvest.
The story Pink Lady production gives Italian producers a pretty premium first appeared on The Land.