All in the family: Montague apples

16th June 2020 | Alison Turner

Crunching your way into a sweet, juicy apple is one of life’s simple pleasures. A few decades ago, Granny Smith and Red Delicious were about the only varieties people had to choose from, but now apple lovers are spoilt for choice, with countless different types on offer.

One of Australia’s premium apple growing families, Montague, is continually breaking new fruity ground, introducing us to apples such as Jazz, Envy and eve. The company, which also grows stone fruit, pears and tropical fruits, now sees total sales of $170 million and employs more than 50 apple growers alone. But it all began with one man, over 70 years ago.

Bill Montague was a provedore who supplied fresh fruit and vegies to hospitals. Starting his own company in 1948, he then bought a property at Narre Warren North, Victoria, in the 1950s. He decided to plant some apples, becoming one of the first growers to introduce Red Delicious into Australia. The family continue to grow apples there to this day.

“Today we are into the third generation,” says Rowan Little, General Manager for Montague Fresh. “Bill Montague had three sons, and they took on the family business, and then in the mid-1990s the third generation joined.”

Three generations: Ray, Bill and Scott Montague.

Crunch time: creating new brands

The creation of a new brand of apple is an interesting operation. Let’s say you took a Jazz apple, cut it open and planted the seeds from it. Whatever fruit grew from that seed wouldn’t actually be Jazz, it would be the progeny of Jazz, combined with whichever type of pollen the flower of that plant was pollinated with.

“What you’re actually doing when you’re breeding new varieties is you’re taking a tree or some plant material and you’re adding a pollen of something else with the traits that you’re looking to create,” Little explains. “In the natural environment, all of that happens by chance. What we do is more like breeder selection.”

As an example, Jazz apples are the fruit of a tree called Scifresh. The parentage, or the two varieties used to create Scifresh, were Braeburn and Royal Gala. These two were crossed to create the seedling that creates Scifresh which produces Jazz apples.

“Let’s say you take a Braeburn tree, and on that Braeburn tree there were a thousand flowers,” Little explains. “You take the pollen of Royal Gala and you use that pollen on all the Braeburn flowers. Then you take the seeds from the fruit that grew from this, and you plant all of those seeds – you then have 1000 offspring that are Gala by Braeburn.

“Of those 1000, some won’t bear good fruit. Of the ones that did bear good fruit, you then narrow your choice down to one, and that’s how you find the variety you’re looking for. Then you take the wood from that one, and you propagate the wood. You start out with a massive amount of plant material and you end up whittling that down to the fruit you want.”

All that Jazz: a Montague orchard.

When Montague first started out, their choice of apples was pretty much down to whatever a breeder brought to the table. However, as there are now so many breeders and choices, Montague can ask for an apple that has very specific traits.

“When we started there were few around – we looked at Scifresh and that was exciting for us, so we added it to the range,” Little says. “But nowadays, with so many options, it’s much more pointed. There’s an abundance of new cultivars and it’s up to us to say what we want.”

Brand vs. variety – what’s the difference?

“The variety is actually the tree,” Little explains. “When breeders first started, they didn’t distinguish between the variety, or the tree, and the fruit that came from it. So, for example, Granny Smith is the variety, and it’s also the name of the fruit.”

With this new boom in breeding, and because there are so many brands that are the same cross but are actually a different progeny that has created a different apple, producers decided to clear up the confusion by giving their apples brand names.

“To help the consumer, we say the tree is called this name, but the fruit from the tree is the brand name,” Little says. “But then, not all of the fruit which comes from the Scifresh tree we call Jazz. Jazz has to have certain characteristics. Of all the fruit we get from the Scifresh tree, probably only 75% is Jazz.”

Food of the gods: the Ambrosia apple.

Montague’s latest apple brand to come to market – and will only be available for a few short weeks – is the Ambrosia. And this little gem has quite a nice story.

“Where Scifresh or Jazz came from a breeder, Ambrosia is truly natural selection,” Little says. “A grower in Canada went out to his orchard one day and found this limb on a tree had grown, and the apples on it were completely different. It was a genetic mutation – a chance. The apple tree was a Fuji, but the apple was a different colour and shape.

“He took that limb and he grafted it onto some root stock and propagated it up, and now Ambrosia apples are sold all over the world.”

Nurturing the land and the local community

When you make your living off the land, you need to respect the land, and cultivate it carefully. The Montagues understand this well – the family has been growing apples on the same orchard block at Narre Warren for 70 years.

“You can only do that if you’re sustainable,” Little says. “We see ourselves as people of the land, and it’s our pride to make sure we can keep farming. At the Narre Warren property, all the water that we use is all captured. We try to rebuild the organic matter, rebuild the soil, so we leave things fallow for as long as we can.

“We also use integrated pest management – releasing a population, or encouraging the development of a population of a non-threatening insect species in order to control an insect species that’s damaging to fruit.”

Every Aussie deserves a good apple.

As well as looking after the land, Montague also cares for the community, doing their bit to help Australians in need gain access to fresh fruit.

“Some of the fruit we harvest is cosmetically not up to standard and so is unacceptable to the supermarkets,” Little says. “But it’s still perfectly good to eat. So, we formed a partnership with Second Bite and Food Bank to donate that product to them.

“Our great passion is that every Australian deserves to have a good apple.”

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