Defendants respond in SweeTango lawsuit
Photo courtesy of Next Big Thing.
Officials at the University of Minnesota and at Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minnesota, have filed a response to the lawsuit brought by Minnesota apple growers who claim they are unfairly denied the benefits that will come from the new apple, SweeTango.
The lawsuit came over issues generated by the agreement between that land grant university and Pepin Heights. The university consigned the apple to Pepin Heights. Pepin Heights led in the creation of Next Big Thing, a cooperative of growers that will grow and market the variety. The University of Minnesota, which has one of only three university apple breeding programs in the United States, has released some real winners in recent years, including Honeycrisp and Zestar!
The release of SweeTango—a cross of Honeycrisp and Zestar!—was its first try at the exclusive release of a managed variety, which will be restricted in where it will be grown and who will grow it.
In the last two years, both Washington State University and Cornell University have also released “club” varieties. In both those cases, the apples are restricted to growers in the home state. In Minnesota’s release, most of the apples will not be available to growers in the home state and will be grown in other states, including Washington, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, and Nova Scotia, Canada. Only three orchards in Minnesota are part of Next Big Thing.
If the variety is very successful and several million trees are planted, Minnesota growers will be a small part of that action, as the agreement restricts the 180 apple growers in the state to 50,000 trees, total. These apples must be sold directly to stores or consumers and not pooled for wholesale distribution.
Fourteen Minnesota growers and packers filed suit June 16, claiming they and their state’s industry are damaged by the actions of their university, and they want the agreement be declared void.
The lawsuit says that public money was used to fund work at the university that led to the apple’s creation and that licensing it in the way it was done violates public policy, state anti-trust laws, and the state’ constitution.
The response filed by the defendants states that Pepin Heights entered into non-exclusive sublicenses with numerous Minnesota growers and helped form an agricultural Cooperative (NBT), which enables growers to propagate and sell the variety. All Minnesota growers, including the plaintiffs, could have requested either to be sublicensed or to join the cooperative.
Pepin Heights was awarded the license for SweeTango through a competitive process. According to the response filed by the defendants, Westcott Orchards and Agri Products, one of the plaintiffs, was among those who submitted a proposal to the University of Minnesota to license and manage the development of the variety.
The other plaintiffs are: Aamodt’s Apple Farm, Apple Ridge Orchards, Richard Bremer, Bridal Rock Orchard, Cenco Farms, Croix Farm Orchard, Karl Townsend, Ferguson’s Morningside Orchard, JQ Fruit Farm and Orchard, Minnesota Apple Producers (dba Nelson’s Apple Farm), Sacia Orchard, Southwind Orchard, and Van Lin Orchards.
For more information see the August issue of the Good Fruit Grower.