MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Fourteen orchards and a dozen apple growers claim that the University of Minnesota’s tight restrictions on growing and selling the SweetTango apple will drive them out of business, as older breeds are replaced by the new “breakthrough apple variety.” The orchardists say the restrictions are particularly unfair as the UM used public money to develop the SweetTango.
An early-season cross between the popular Honeycrisp and Zestar breeds, the SweetTango, which comes from the Minneiska tree, was developed in 2000 by the university’s publicly funded apple breeding program.
In 2005, Pepin Heights Orchard, of Lake City, Minn., signed an exclusive license agreement to grow and sell SweetTangoes for the university.
The agreement restricted all other growers from planting more than 1,000 Minneiska trees, and barred them from pooling harvests and from selling to wholesalers.
Calling themselves the Minnesota Apple Growers for Fair Trade, the orchardists sued the university and Pepin Heights in Hennepin County Court, claiming the agreement constitutes unfair competition under state and federal law, and creates “consumer confusion.”
“The Minnesota Apple Growers for Fair Trade are looking to level the playing field, preserve the mutually beneficial relationship with the University and its apple breeding program, and ensure that Minnesota consumers have access to the quality locally grown apple varieties at fair and competitive prices,” the group wrote in a June 17 “Communication to All Apple Growers” posted on heavytable.com, a Twin cities-based food magazine.
The growers claim in the lawsuit that SweetTango is being marketed as the next great apple and is meant to replace the popular Honeycrisp.
If this comes to pass, the orchardists say, all Minnesota growers save Pepin Heights will be at a disadvantage.
The growers cite a 2009 marketing campaign launched by Pepin Heights and the university that called the SweetTango the “Honeycrisp killer,” touting the new breed’s superiority.
“The effect of such restrictions creates unfair competition in the wholesale distribution of apples – both in the Minnesota marketplace and outside the state of Minnesota,” the group said in its “Communication.”
“Further, the inability to provide a complete line of regional varieties, including SweetTango, has already resulted in the loss of entire wholesale accounts for some of the Minnesota Apple Growers.”
The group claims the agreement goes violates the land-grant university’s policies on new inventions and technologies for the consumer market, which require the school to seek the greatest benefit for the university and taxpayers.
In 2006, Pepin Heights formed the “Next Big Thing” cooperative to grow and market SweetTango. According to the co-op’s website, it “anticipate(s) having commercial quantities of fruit to take to the market in 2010.”
Pepin Heights did not return a call seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The growers sued the university and several administrators, Pepin Heights and its president and vice-president, and David Bedford, an apple breeder at the university who developed the SweetTango and more than 27 other apple varieties.
The growers want the agreement voided and the university and Pepin Heights enjoined from limiting the production and sale of the SweetTango.
The growers are represented by Lisa Bachman with Foley and Mansfield.
Unlike many fruits, apples do not breed true from seeds. As a result, many orchards keep large, hit-or-miss test groves to see what sorts of fruit the seeds produce. Commercially grown apples are produced by grafting. As a result, all apples of the same breed are genetically identical. After generations upon generations of such trees are produced, the apples may begin to lose some of the characteristics that made them popular, so orchardists are always looking for new breeds.
Because of this, many breeds of apples are named for the people who “discovered” them in the wild.
American folk hero Johnny Appleseed did not care what sort of trees he planted, as he grew the apples to make hard cider.