Ownership has changed at two of the tree fruit world’s best-known businesses.
Wally Heuser, the 85-year-old founder of Summit Tree Sales and International Plant Management, in Lawrence, Michigan, has transferred ownership and become a consultant for the two companies. Transfer of ownership was completed in 2012.
Summit Tree Sales is now owned by Katie Schuld and Jan Melvin, two long-time employees who are now business partners. International Plant Management is now owned by Wanda Heuser Gale, Wally Heuser’s daughter.
The four have worked together for many years and were involved in building the two companies that Heuser created after Hilltop Orchards, the Heuser family orchard and nursery business, was sold in 1989.
Little has changed in the ways the companies operate. They, along with Jan’s daughter-in-law, Dawn Melvin, continue in their offices in the lower level of Heuser’s home.
“Summit Sales sells trees to commercial growers,” Schuld said. While it grows no trees itself, it works as a go-between for growers seeking fruit trees and the nurseries that grow them.
“We’re a one-stop source for growers,” Melvin added. “And it costs the growers nothing for our services. We work on a commission basis and are paid by the nurseries.”
“We provide services to both the growers and the nurseries,” Schuld said. “The nurseries provide updated inventories to us on a regular basis. We can help the growers in deciding what to plant and place orders with the nurseries to get them. We take pride in the relationships we have developed with both the growers and the nurseries as well as our contacts in the industry.”
“In years past,” Melvin said, “growers ordered trees and Summit Sales found them and filled the orders. Now, with a shortage of rootstocks and a proliferation of varieties, nurseries do less budding on speculation and work more on contract orders from growers. We are much more proactive in urging growers to book ahead. Even if they don’t know what they want to plant, they can reserve rootstock and decide on varieties at a later time. With current demand for trees vastly exceeding supplies, Summit is taking orders for delivery of trees in 2017 and later.”
International Plant Management
Wally Heuser’s rise to fame in the fruit industry came from his work with rootstocks for apples and cherries and with the introduction of new varieties of apples, peaches, sweet and tart cherries, and plums. His daughter, who has worked with him, will take over that work, a continuation of what she has been doing for years.
Early in his career, Heuser became interested in dwarfing rootstocks and, in 1957, became a founder of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association. Its first meeting was in an apple storage on his farm. As a testament to IFTA’s success, the word dwarf was dropped from the name a few years ago; all apple trees are now dwarf trees.
“When I got out of college, I knew what I wanted to do,” Heuser said. “I had studied horticulture, and I was interested in the study of the dwarfing of fruit trees. It was a new idea in those days. My major professor at Michigan State had gotten me into that. So I came home with that as one of my goals.
Dad sort of let me have free rein. I worked into the management and the decision-making. The business was growing pretty rapidly.”
During his career, Heuser introduced 70 patented or trademarked varieties, 23 of them while at Hilltop and 47 through International Plant Management.
Some of the varieties came from breeders. Heuser worked with Cornell University stone fruit breeder, Bob Andersen, in releasing 12 plum, sweet cherry, and tart cherry varieties, including the highly regarded BlackPearl sweet cherry. He works with Randy and Annette Bjorge at Fruit Acres in bringing their Stellar Series peaches to market.
But his big effort has been in working with growers who discover interesting new trees in their orchards—seedlings like Paulared, whole tree or limb mutations like RubyMac, Blondee, Redchief Red Delicious, or Smoothee Golden Delicious. In most cases, the outstanding feature of a new sport is its redness or its ability to color in warmer climates. In many cases, the sport became the most-planted strain of the variety.
He worked with Bernard Thome on RubyMac and Harold Thome on sports of IdaRed, Jonathan, and Empire. He also works with the Simmons Family at Peace Valley Orchards on Buckeye Gala, and dozens of other variety discoverers.
Wanda does all the patent applications. “I have written all the patents except one,” Wanda said. “Keeping records is a huge part of the task.”
Wally Heuser built a special relationship with the Gisela cherry rootstock people in Germany and has the exclusive North American rights to Gisela.
“When Cornell University discontinued its sweet cherry breeding program, we took the whole seedling block,” Heuser said. “We have the only surviving trees from that test orchard, and, at this point, we’ve released 10 or 12.”
Road to royalty
With varieties discovered by growers, the general process starts when a grower finds a mutation in a tree or a seedling tree in the orchard and contacts International Plant Management, Wanda explained. If it looks interesting, she said, the grower and IPM may enter into a ten-year contract, with IPM to manage and develop the variety.
That requires testing it for its genetic stability and uniqueness and growing it at several locations to test its performance in different regions.
“We establish scionwood blocks in key locations, and inspect and maintain these sources to establish trueness to type and variety,” Wanda said.
If it looks promising, IPM will arrange to have budwood cleaned and certified free of viruses at the National Clean Plant Network in Prosser, Washington. IPM maintains a virus-free scion wood block in Michigan.
The next steps are to apply for plant patent and trademark protection, establish royalty rates, and license nurseries to grow the trees. Clean budwood is made available to nurseries, trees are sold to growers, and royalties are collected and distributed.
A key part of the program is promotion and marketing—letting growers know about the new strains and why they should plant them. Both Summit Sales and International Plant Management have booths at several horticultural shows each year, and they participate in or sponsor showcase meetings to let would-be growers see and taste plums, cherries, peaches, and apples.
For all of these services, IPM gets a share of the royalty earnings. After a lifetime of working with fruit trees, Heuser intends to pay more attention to his other plants. His nine-acre yard is landscaped with oaks, maples, and other forest trees, flowers like dahlias and hostas, of which he has huge collections, and increasingly with evergreens. Winter is easier to take when trees stay green—something his fruit trees never did. It’s a big project involving himself and three gardeners. •