SweeTango orchards like this one at Pepin Heights produced enough fruit last year to start the buzz, which could rise to a crescendo this August if a good crop and the marketing plan come together as planned.

SweeTango orchards like this one at Pepin Heights produced enough fruit last year to start the buzz, which could rise to a crescendo this August if a good crop and the marketing plan come together as planned.

SweeTango apples will, nature cooperating, begin flowing to market in commercial quantities in late August, and, if plans work out, consumers will “pull” these apples from retail shelves, spurred by their desire to have something new and special.

If all goes according to Tim Byrne’s plan, there’s going to be a lot of SweeTango buzz for two or three months this fall, and producers won’t have to “push” the apples through the system.

Byrne is the president of Next Big Thing, a cooperative formed in 2006 to develop and market MN 1914, a new apple bred at the University of Minnesota. As the offspring of a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar!, the new variety, named SweeTango, is generating great expectations.

Unlike new apples from breeding programs in Washington State and New York, ­SweeTango apples are coming to market fast. Dennis Courtier, the 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. Planting started in 2007.

Now, Byrne said, there are 500,000 trees in the ground in the United States, and another 25,000 in Nova Scotia, where planting was delayed to 2009 by the process of making sure they were certified virus-free.

“We ramped up fast,” Byrne said. “We budded trees and planted like crazy.” The trees were produced at three nurseries—Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington; Cameron Nursery in Eltopia, Washington; and Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pennyslvania. About 80 percent of them are on M.9 and Bud.9 rootstocks, but many on the lighter soils in northern Michigan have gone in on the more vigorous M.26, and a few have been planted on new rootstocks from Cornell and Vineland. Everything is supported on trellis, Byrne said, and planted at an ­average of 1,000 trees per acre.

Marketing concept

Last September, the SweeTango promoters were able to use their limited quantity of apples in a marketing blitz that won them nationwide coverage in an Associated Press article—lots of buzz for not many apples—but ­perhaps giving a taste for what’s in store for late August. The apples should ripen the last week of August in Pasco, Washington, and September 9-15 in the Midwest and New York, Byrne said.

“We have a number in mind,” Byrne said, both for number of apples and their price. A guess might be 30 bins per acre from 500 acres of high-density plantings in their fourth leaf selling at Honeycrisp-like prices.

This year will test the Next Big Thing marketing concept. The idea, Byrne said, is to create an apple that will have a “relationship” with certain consumers, “the alpha shoppers,” the ones who want to be first, will pay more, and will tweet on Twitter and gossip on Facebook, selling the apples to their friends. SweeTango has a Facebook page and drew 269 fans in a couple of weeks last fall.

The apples will be marketed in bulk displays with PLU stickers, Byrne said, “but we’re looking at something else, maybe a four-pack compostable package that will appeal to our customers.”

Reducing risk

Next Big Thing differs from other managed, or club, variety marketers in several ways, Byrne said. The cooperative has diversified production across North America, lessening weather risk and producing fruit closer to markets. Not only does this reduce transportation costs, it brings fresh apples to local markets where fresh and local are selling points.

Production and marketing stretches from Washington to Nova Scotia, and there are four separate sales desks, but all working off one price sheet. In Washington, Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee is coordinating sales and production from a half-dozen large growers. Three growers in ­Washington will be producing SweeTango apples organically.

In the Midwest, Pepin Heights will handle packing and marketing of apples produced by 18 cooperative partners in Michigan, one in ­Wisconsin, and three in Minnesota. The Michigan apples will be shipped to Minnesota for packing this year, but a packing plant in Michigan is being considered, Byrne said.

In New York, 15 partners will funnel their apples either to Fowler Farms, Wolcott, New York, or Lake Ontario Fruit, Albion, New York, for packing. Fowler Farms will manage all the sales activities for the New York-grown fruit.

Seventy-five percent of the SweeTango apples will be grown east of the Mississippi River, Byrne said. “Growing the fruit nearer to the end user makes economic and qualitative sense,” he added.

In Nova Scotia, Scotian Gold Cooperative will sell apples produced by 20 growers. Scotian Gold counts as one member, not 20, so Next Best Thing is made up of 45 partners but 64 growers.

In Minnesota, SweeTango apples will also be available at farms and farmers’ markets. The apple was created at Minnesota’s land-grant university, and provisions were made to make up to 1,000 trees available to any Minnesota grower who markets directly to consumers.

More grower friendly

Byrne says it is very good texturally, with less break than a Honeycrisp, but he describes it as a deeper, richer apple with a flavor that’s more complex. It is red (darker red than Honeycrisp) over a yellow background. While it has large lenticels and sometimes some russeting on the stem bowl, it looks like an heirloom apple and the slight russet can be a ­distinguishing feature of the fruit, Byrne said. It is not prone to bitter pit.

The tree is more grower-friendly than Honeycrisp. However, like Honeycrisp, it is susceptible to fireblight and can runt out if cropped too early. It has open branches and crops annually. Because of its thin skin, the stems need to be clipped at harvest.

While the marketing philosophy espoused by Courtier and Byrne will be tested this year, they’re pretty confident. Next Big Thing members are currently testing 25 to 30 other varieties from all over the world—looking, of course, for the next big thing.

“We would like to have several really strong apples, a stable of ­interesting, differentiated apples,” Byrne said. “But if you don’t have a thoroughbred, it doesn’t matter how good the jockey is.”