Lenticel breakdown afflicted SweeTango grown in Michigan last year. (Courtesy of Next Big Thing)

Production of SweeTango apples is gradually approaching its target of “just north of a half-­million bushels,” but the path hasn’t been easy.

“Too bad new apples don’t come with owner’s manuals,” said Tim Byrne, the president of Next Big Thing, the ­Minnesota-based cooperative in which 45 entities—involving 64 growers—share production of this highly touted offspring of Honeycrisp and Zestar! “It’s like ­building a plane as you fly it.”

After freezes in 2012 reduced production in what was to be the first major production year, production was good in 2013, Byrne said. But there was some disappointment in Michigan, a major ­growing area.

Mike Wittenbach, a grower from Belding, Michigan, said there were problems with lenticel breakdown. The lenticels on SweeTango are prominent.

Late fall rain and summer heat led to some “size and quality issues,” as Byrne put it. Wittenbach added that some overcropping led to smaller fruit. Next Big Thing’s protocol was not to market small fruit in order to protect SweeTango’s integrity.

Variety weaknesses

In addition to lenticel breakdown, the variety is susceptible to russeting, Byrne said. In Michigan, where last spring was cool and wet after bloom, russeting was an issue, he said.

Russeting was once common on apples in the days before modern spray protocols. However, the dominance of Red Delicious, a variety that does not russet, further contributed to loss of acceptance of russeted apples. “It is not easy to sell today, as most consumers still buy with their eyes,” Byrne said. Russeted apples are sometimes sold as heirloom or cider varieties now.

“SweeTango is a thin-skinned apple, which is a great virtue when you’re eating it,” Byrne said. But that’s the basic reason for its russeting. Russeting is caused by rapid expansion in an apple’s early growth stage, which leads to breaks in the skin that heal, leaving scars.

SweeTango’s tenderness also affects how the apples need to be harvested, Byrne said. Stems are clipped, apples are placed into bins lined with bubble wrap, and the bins are not fully filled. In the packing house, they’re taken from cold storage and allowed to warm to 40 to 45 degrees to reduce packing line damage.

The combination of smaller size, brown spots from lenticel breakdown, and russeting reduced the packout in Michigan, considerably for some growers. “It’s still a great piece of fruit, and we made more than the average amount of money,” ­Wittenbach said. “But every grower hopes to make more money.”

In 2012, a grower in New York tried a fungicide reduction program in which he quit spraying captan early in an attempt to better control russeting, Byrne said. He learned the hard way that SweeTango is quite susceptible to apple scab. In 2013, he modified his spray protocols and was able to control russet and eliminate the scab issue.

SweeTango was bred at the University of Minnesota, where breeders in the mid-1990s saw the mounting success of Honeycrisp and deliberately crossed it with Zestar!, another rising star from its stable. While Honeycrisp was observed for 30 years before it was released in 1991, SweeTango, with only a decade of development, was being planted by 2007.

Dennis Courtier, president of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minnesota, purchased rights to the new apple in December 2005, and by July 2006 had put together a cooperative of 64 growers to produce them—selling them on the idea of bringing a superior club apple to market fast.

By the end of 2009, the last of 500,000 trees had been planted in the United States and another 25,000 in Nova Scotia.

“We ramped up fast,” Byrne said. “We budded trees and planted like crazy. But we had less scientific information to start out with.” The trees were produced at three nurseries—Willow Drive in Ephrata, Washington; Cameron Nursery in Eltopia, Washington; and Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pennyslvania.

When varieties are released as club varieties, as ­SweeTango was, Byrne believes there is less incentive for public institutions, such as land-grant universities, to prove their worth and find their limitations. “It’s hard to justify research that all your constituents can’t share in,” Byrne said.

“Things that Extension used to do for us, they don’t have the staff or money to do,” he added. “You have to develop your own drivers’ training manual.”

Private research

Three years ago, Next Big Thing hired Reality Research, a company in western New York State, to do private research to address various horticultural aspects of growing SweeTango.

They’re addressing issues relating to how to produce clean fruit and protocols on how to effectively thin it, Byrne said. Next Big Thing is working with Agro­Fresh to develop protocols on how to use 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP)—in the form of SmartFresh when used in storage and Harvista when applied in the orchard.

“We are especially interested in whether Harvista can extend the shelf life,” Byrne said. “The real test of apple quality is not the long-term storage, but those 14 days they spend on the shelf as they are being marketed after coming out of storage.
“It was part of our strategic plan to sell all the fruit in 75 days after harvest,” he said, “and we did that last fall.”

SweeTango is an early apple—about two weeks earlier than Honeycrisp—with harvest starting in late August. Next Big Thing’s plan was to put an apple equal to or better than Honeycrisp into the market just ahead of Honeycrisp and sell them all by mid-November.

“Our goal is to return as much money to growers as possible,” Byrne said. “We would rather have one box too few than one box too many.”

Byrne said the targeted number of SweeTango trees has been planted and full production will be reached in two or three more years. That will end “phase one” of the plan.

What might be in phase two? Byrne said Next Big Thing would assess whether to plant more of the variety or stick with what they have in production once they have gone to market with a full crop. But the plan is to expand the scope of Next Big Thing. NBT is also an equity stockholder in a company based in France that is developing red-fleshed apples. “Test trees are coming here this year,” Byrne said.

Red flesh

In 2011, Next Big Thing joined with 12 other fruit marketers from 11 countries and five continents in a global consortium called IFORED. The goal was to bring red-fleshed apples to market within five years. IFORED was coined from the acronym of International Fruit Obtention, the French-based company formed in 2004 to breed for red flesh in apples, and the word red.

IFORED was created when the fruit marketers met in Angers, France. The consortium will test, select, and commercialize red-fleshed apple varieties. Byrne said Next Big Thing grower members across the United States and eastern Canada will plant test quantities of red-fleshed apple selections this spring.

In addition, Next Big Thing growers are testing other selections in their orchards. Six selections are on advanced trial at four sites. “Three have been identified as potentially commercial,” he said. “One of them may be chosen for planting within the next 18 months.”

SweeTango apples are being packed in seven packing houses located in the four regions where the variety is being produced. In Washington State, Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee is coordinating production and sales from the orchards of a half-dozen large growers. In the Midwest, packers are Pepin Heights in Minnesota and Elite Packing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Elite Packing came on line last season to serve the 18 Michigan growers.

In New York, Lake Ontario Fruit in Albion and Fowler Farms in Wolcott are packing the apples, and were joined this year by a new packer in the Lake Champlain area, Chazy Orchards. In Nova Scotia, 20 members of Scotian Gold Cooperative grow the apples and Scotian Gold packs them.

Last fall, SweeTango apples were sold in stores in all 50 states and in Canada, Byrne said.