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.
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.”
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.”