Sour apple growers end legal tango with the U

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2011 - 10:54 PM
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In this Aug. 29, 2009 file photo, SweeTango apples hang from a tree at Pepin Heights Orchards near Lake City, Minn. A judge ordered the University of Minnesota and apple growers fighting for the right to grow a new apple developed at the university into mediation on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

Photo: Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

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A legal tango over a sweet Minnesota apple is leaving a bitter taste.

After a year-long tussle, a group of disgruntled Minnesota apple growers and the University of Minnesota have agreed to end their battle over the SweeTango, a tasty sensation that takes the best of the popular Zestar and Honeycrisp varieties.

But it might be just the opening skirmish in The Great Minnesota Apple War.

"We're not all going to fold and go quietly into the night," said Karl Townsend, owner of Dassel Hillside Farm.

Townsend was one of 15 growers who filed a lawsuit last year over an exclusive licensing agreement that the University of Minnesota struck with the Pepin Heights Orchard.

Dennis Courtier, owner of Pepin Heights, said Monday that the lawsuit was frivolous. "It was goofy. ... It was a lot of sour grapes over a sweet apple."

But Townsend and other growers said the exclusive agreement limits their ability to grow, sell and ultimately profit from the SweeTango. In particular, the deal keeps them from selling through wholesalers -- an essential source of revenue for most orchards. A district judge dismissed most of the claims in the growers' suit in February, and on Monday both sides announced they settled the remaining dispute. The exclusive deal with Pepin Heights Orchard remains but the University of Minnesota will increase the number of trees available to Minnesota growers.

The increase is welcome news for the small roadside orchards, but falls short of helping larger growers, Townsend said. "It's a joke," he said.

The university's restrictive rules on the SweeTango are meant to maintain a high-quality apple, protecting its value to the university. It was a lesson learned after the university debuted the Honeycrisp in 1991, but soon saw it planted in areas that caused quality to suffer.

And that's not what apple growers want to see happen to the SweeTango. "It has fantastic flavor. It has fantastic crunch," Courtier said. "But you have to do a lot of things right to get it right."

Townsend said the SweeTango's quality and the university's revenue could have been protected without the exclusive agreement. Townsend said the growers don't have the money to continue a court fight so they're moving the battle to another front by working with private breeders to develop the next orchard star.

"We already have two more exciting varieties in the works," he said. "The SweeTango is an early apple that doesn't store well," Townsend said. "We're looking for the next improved variety."

Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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