Apple Farming: it ain’t what it used to be

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This week a new apple variety arrived in the market.
I know this because I read about it in a press release. That’s right, a fruit with a publicist. And a logo. And a facebook page.

If you’re wondering what’s going on here, look no further than the Honeycrisp.

Developed at the University of Minnesota and introduced to the public in the early 1900’s, the Honeycrisp apple was a game-changer. Hailed in the New York Times as the iPod of the apple world (tree-grown division), this is an apple that was credited with single-handedly saving Upper-Midwestern agriculture from the threat of overseas competition. An apple that was named one of mankind’s top world-changing innovations by the very smart members of the Association of University Technology Managers, right up there with Google and hearing-enabling implants for the deaf. And it is an apple with an expired US patent.

The University of Minnesota had a nice run with the Honeycrisp. They’ve already collected more than $8 million, mostly from a $1.30 per-tree royalty paid by growers, and expect to collect about the same from the overseas markets where the patents are in place for a few more years.

With its new variety, The SweeTango, the university is hoping for an even bigger payday. While the school expects the apple to generate Honeycrisp-sized royalties, it has also licensed the SweeTango trademark to a group of growers who cheekily named their cooperative Next Big Thing. The arrangement created a managed variety, giving control to Next Big Thing over tree sales to other farmers, as well as the growing, shipping, and marketing of the apples. In addition to the royalties, the co-op will pay the school 4.5 percent of the apple’s net wholesale sales in perpetuity.

If you can’t get your hands on a SweeTango (availability is limited this year, mostly in the Mid- and Northwest) and have not yet tried a Honeycrisp apple, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. The Honeycrisp is a cross between the Macoun and the Honeygold varieties that manages to marry the tartness sought by some with a prized level of sweetness; the SweeTango has been further crossed with the Zestar! variety (their explanation point- not mine). While the Honeycrisp achieves an admirably balanced flavor that has been described as perfect, even magical, the SweeTango is said to take the flavor up a notch with an added hint of ‘fall spice.’ Both varieties have unusually thin skins and high water content: biting into one results in a satisfying crunch of uncommon crispness that releases a flood of cidery juices.

Full disclosure– a long-time fan of the Honeycrisp, I have not been able to locate a SweeTango here in Philadelphia. Availability is limited this year, mostly in the Mid- and Northwest, with wide distribution beginning in the fall of 2010. Until then, me and the SweeTangos, we can always be facebook friends.

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