Forbidden fruit: A new apple, the SweeTango, at center of controversy

Fred Sandvick picks apples on his 80 acre farm, Hickory Orchards, Wednesday in rural La Crescent. He and other Minnesota apple growers are suing the University of Minnesota to lift the restriction on growing and selling SweeTango apples, a new variety recently developed by the university. PETER THOMSON photo

The SweeTango is everything you could want from an apple. It has crunch and lots of juice. As the name suggests, it’s sweet, with a hint of spice. Already fat and red by August, it’s an early taste of fall.

Fred Sandvick picks one off a young tree in his La Crescent orchard and tosses it to a visitor.

“It’s a good apple,” he says.

But without legal intervention this homegrown apple, invented by scientists at the University of Minnesota, won’t be a money maker for Sandvick, or most Minnesota growers.

As the new crop ripens, a lawsuit is working its way through the courts, pitting Minnesota apple growers against one another and the institution that developed much of the fruit on which the industry is based. At the heart of the suit is a contract that gives one Lake City orchard the exclusive rights to market and sell this new apple – and to control who grows it.

About a dozen apple growers who joined the suit allege the arrangement effectively shuts them out of what could be the hottest new apple variety since the Honeycrisp and could jeopardize the Mississippi River valley fruit industry.

The lawsuit

Developed in 2000 by the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program, the SweeTango is a cross between the popular Honeycrisp and Zestar varieties.

The university granted Pepin Heights Orchard an exclusive license to grow and sell the apple. In 2006, Pepin Heights formed a cooperative, called Next Big Thing, comprised of 45 growers who would produce SweeTango apples grown on Minneiska trees.

An exception allows Minnesota orchards to plant the trees, but with restrictions: they can have no more than 1,000 trees – a fraction of what wholesale growers typically plant – and are forbidden from pooling their crops with other orchards for the wholesale market or selling them outside the state.

That limits growers like Sandvick to selling their crop at the farm, in farmers markets and roadside stands, or direct to a grocer. The problem, growers say, is that few grocers will do business with individual orchards with small crops. The only way they can survive is by combining their crops to sell to wholesalers, which the contract prohibits.

The lawsuit, filed in June in Hennepin County District Court, alleges the agreement runs contrary to state and federal law as well as to the university’s policy as a Land Grant institution.

Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the university system, disputes that claim, saying public institutions regularly license intellectual property and rely on the revenue to fund future research and inventions.

Rotenberg said the managed variety agreement grew from a bad experience with the Honeycrisp. Some growers planted that apple in areas where it wasn’t intended to be grown, undermining the brand.

“Our chief concern is the quality of the fruit,” he said. “We want to protect the taste and appearance. This is the best way to do it. There’s nothing unlawful about that whatsoever.”

Dennis Courtier, president of Pepin Heights Orchards, echoes that.

“We’re snack food producers,” he said. “For us it’s about share of stomach. Our competition is Doritos and Snickers bars. The only way to compete is consistency. … You can’t disappoint consumers.”

Deliver an apple that doesn’t disappoint, he said, and people will eat more apples.

‘An even field’

The lawsuit claims a publicly-funded institution used tax dollars to develop a new apple that will benefit mostly out of state orchards at the expense of Minnesota farms.

“It just isn’t right when you look at it,” Sandvick said. “An even field, that’s all we’re asking for.”

Fred Wescott is an apple grower from Elgin, Minn., who runs the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co., which packages and distributes many of the apples grown along the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The arrangement hasn’t just created an uneven field, said Wescott, also a partner in Fred Sandvick’s Hickory Orchard. “When the university comes out with a new variety and that variety gets leveraged against all the other growers in the area, it takes the playing field and turns it upside down.”

Courtier said his orchard won the right to manage the SweeTango in an open process and that all members of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association were invited to contact him about joining the growers coop.

“The whole thing is regrettable,” Courtier said. “We have every confidence our agreements are in full conformity with state and federal laws.”

Plaintiffs say they don’t begrudge Pepin Heights the right to control the national production and marketing of SweeTango, but they want a fair shot at competing in their home state.

“It doesn’t need to be done this way,” Wescott said. “Everybody can win.”

Honeycrisp killer?

The complaint alleges the university and Pepin Heights marketed SweeTango as a “Honeycrisp killer,” an apple poised to replace one of the market’s most popular varieties. Retailers want what’s popular, and if growers can’t supply it, they’re likely to lose those accounts, as the suit claims some already have.

Next Big Thing promoted the SweeTango in a 2008 YouTube video.

“I think that it’s one of the best apples we’ve discovered in a hundred years of breeding,” said David Bedford, the apple breeder at the University of Minnesota who helped develop SweeTango and will profit from its success.

Bedford, who estimates he’s tasted millions of apples in more than 30 years as a breeder, predicted “it’s going to become one of the top apples in the country.”

Sandvick sums up the problem this way: “People hear SweeTango, they’re going to want to come try it.”

Others feel the university is taking advantage of the growers who have helped make the horticultural program successful.

“The personal feeling is that we’re the marketing arm of any new apple that comes out of the University of Minnesota,” said John Curtis, who runs Southwind Orchard in Dakota, Minn. “We promote the name but we don’t get the benefit.”

The Minnesota apple industry and the university’s breeding program are key partners, according to the complaint. Four out of five apples grown in the state were developed through the program, which has relied on Minnesota orchards to test and market apples like the Regent, Zestar and Honeycrisp.

But only three of the members of the SweeTango grower’s coop, including Pepin Heights and La Crescent’s Fruit Acres, are in Minnesota.

Still, more than 80 Minnesota orchards have planted Minneiska trees, Courtier said, “So it can’t be that bad.”

Harry Hoch planted 1,000 on his organic farm west of La Crescent and plans to sell the fruit at food coops in the Twin Cities. Though he expects to do fine, Hoch doesn’t compete with growers whose apples end up in big box grocery stores.

He is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit but has come out against the marketing arrangement, saying most of the SweeTango crop will be shipped thousands of miles to Minnesota while local farmers are largely shut out of the market.

“What does bother me,” he wrote on his website, “is that our great University of Minnesota has made a mistake in its release of SweeTango and may inadvertently play a role in destroying the Minnesota wholesale apple industry.”

Posted in Local on Sunday, August 29, 2010 12:00 am Updated: 8:46 am.

USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Tonsager Announces Recipients of Rural Business Enterprise Grants

Release No. 0433.10
Contact:
Weldon Freeman (202) 690-1384

USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Tonsager Announces Recipients of Rural Business Enterprise Grants
USDA Support Will Help Create Jobs and Economic Opportunity in Rural Areas

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2010 – USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager today announced that 45 states, the Western Pacific region and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico will benefit from funding made available under the Rural Business Enterprise Grant program (RBEG).

“The funding announced today represents the Obama Administration’s ongoing efforts to create economic and job opportunities in rural areas by ensuring that strategic investments are made in our small towns and cities,” Tonsager said “Rural businesses drive community revitalization by providing products and services to local residents as well as throughout the country and world. Projects like these spur important economic development and strengthen communities across the nation.”

For example, the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation in Laurel, Ky., has been selected to receive a $499,000 grant. This funding will be used to establish a revolving loan fund for small and emerging businesses located in a 14-county service area. This proposed project is expected to create 52 and retain 10 jobs in the area.

In Cass, Iowa, the Southwest Iowa Planning Council has been selected to receive a $95,000 grant. The funding will be used to establish a revolving loan fund to assist small and emerging private businesses in Cass, Fremont, Harrison, Montgomery, Page and Shelby counties. This project is expected to save or create 11 jobs. In both projects, the revolving loan funds bring important access to capital to lend to rural small businesses.

The RBEG program helps to finance and facilitate the development of new and existing businesses in rural America. Funds can be used for start-up and working capital loans, building and plant renovations, transportation improvements, project planning and other business needs.

More information about this program is available at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/BCP_rbeg.html

Funding is contingent upon the recipient meeting the conditions of the grant agreement, and is not provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The following is a complete list of organizations that have been selected to receive RBEG grants. A total of 61 awards were announced.

Minnesota

* Windustry – $275,000 grant to help provide assistance to facilitate wind development projects.
* Northwest Minnesota Foundation – $99,000 grant to provide technical assistance to small and emerging private business enterprises. Initial financing actions are expected to result in 39 jobs being created and/or retained.
* City of Baudette – $99,999 grant to capitalize a revolving loan fund to assist small and emerging private business enterprises. Initial financing actions are expected to result in eight jobs being created and/or retained.

Through its Rural Development mission area, USDA administers and manages more than 40 housing, business and community infrastructure and facility programs through a network of 6,100 employees located in the nation’s capital and 500 state and local offices. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers, and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America. Rural Development has an existing portfolio of more than $142 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

Record crops predicted — but ‘it’s not in the bin yet’

Posted: 09/01/2010 12:01:00 AM CDT

Outside its State Fair building, the Farm Bureau’s hard-luck soybean patch is an annual reminder that farming isn’t easy.

One year, its fairground plants were eaten by rabbits. Another time, zapped by drought. Then trampled by visitors.

But this year, the Minnesota Farm Bureau’s tiny soybean patch is green and lush — and so are the crops on real-life farms all around the state. Thanks to an unusually wet and warm summer, crop records are expected to tumble this fall when the combines start rolling.

“The corn and soybeans out there look fabulous,” said Marvin Johnson, a farmer near Independence. And his alfalfa is growing so well, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Not that farmers at the Fair are boasting. Fall harvest is still several weeks away, and there’s an ingrained wariness about bragging. A freak storm, a killing disease or an early frost could come anytime — although, with temperatures in the 90s this week, the latter seemed a little remote.

“You have to remember, it’s not in the bin yet,” said Gary Wertish, vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. Still, he knows the lush-looking crop and stronger grain prices have helped the mood.

“A lot of it goes back to having a good-looking crop in the field,” Wertish said. “If you’ve got a poor crop, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to make your payments, and that’s a tremendous burden.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a series of ever-happier forecasts of Minnesota’s crop prospects. On Monday, it reiterated that Minnesota has the nation’s finest corn and soybean crops — a potential monster harvest worth more than $8 billion, about 10 percent more than last year.And with grain and livestock prices turning stronger, Minnesota’s rural communities should get an economic lift, too. That’s welcome news anytime but especially now, with recession sapping other parts of the economy.

Still, at the Fair it’s clear that a wet and warm summer hasn’t helped everyone. Inside the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, the competition of growing gigantic vegetables is having “an average to below-average year,” said Phil Klint, superintendent of vegetables and potatoes.

Case in point: The Fair’s giant pumpkin is more than 100 pounds lighter than last year’s record, though the 2010 winner still tips the scales at 1,036 pounds.

“With all this moisture, on and off, a lot of things exploded,” Klint said.

Minnesota fruit growers have had challenges, too.

For grape growers, the season “was going to be good, but we had the Mother’s Day frost,” said Cindi Ross, a board member of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. That killed primary buds at some vineyards, which cuts in half their grape output.

For apple growers, “it was really a goofy year,” said John Leadholm of Fischers Croix Farm Orchard in Hastings. “We had May (weather) in April, and April (weather) in May,” including an untimely frost that zapped some apple varieties then in bloom. But not every variety was affected, nor every orchard. Even individual trees had some branches hit, others spared, he said.

Backyard gardeners have their own issues. The warmth and rain have made peppers go wild, but tomatoes have been iffy. That’s kept the Fair’s master gardeners desk busy.

“Most of the questions today were about tomatoes, why they didn’t grow or rotted on the vine,” said Ellie Anderson, a master gardener from Washington County. Her diagnosis: blossom-end rot, where the tomato looks red on top but the bottom has turned black. Blame the heavy rains.

On Machinery Hill, seed dealer Bert Enestvedt has been a Fair exhibitor for nearly 70 years. For farmers, he calls this year “sort of an ideal growing season,” then added, “That’s in our area (in Renville County). There are some areas that aren’t so lucky.”

He has heard the whispered forecasts of fantastic yields. And it raises the question: In an ideal season, how many bushels per acre is he hoping to see from his corn seed?

Here, Minnesota reserve takes over. Enestvedt makes no bold predictions.

“I’d rather just preserve that answer,” he says.

Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428.

Farm Groups Pleased with Romanski as DATCP Secretary

Wisconsin Ag Connection – 09/01/2010

Several Wisconsin farm groups have issued statements indicating they like what they see in Governor Jim Doyle’s new agriculture secretary. This week, Deputy Secretary Randy Romanski was announced to replace the late-Rod Nilsestuen as the chief of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation says Romanski’s extensive experience with agricultural and rural issues makes him the logical successor to ensure continuity for the industry and consumers.

“We at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation wish to congratulate Randy Romanski on his appointment as Wisconsin’s Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection,” WFBF President Bill Bruins said. “As Deputy Secretary he garnered our respect for his ability to resolve divergent viewpoints on issues.”

Dairy Business Association President Jerry Meissner said Randy will help dairy farmers make a seamless transition as that sector moves forward with important issues in the months ahead.

“As much we miss Rod’s leadership on the dairy issues that are so important to our farmers, Randy’s appointment is good news because he has worked closely with the Governor’s Office and helped shepherd a number of these important issues through the legislative process,” Meissner said.

And the Wisconsin Farmers Union stated that Romanski knows his way around government and knows the importance of taking reasoned approaches to problem-solving. Director Scott Schultz says his best quality is that he listens to people before moving ahead.

Doyle announced his appointment of Randy Romanski to head the state’s agriculture department on Monday. He will serve until January when Doyle retires from public office and his successor names his own new cabinet members.