RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's something of an apple renaissance underway, with new varieties promising evermore crispness, taste, even color, and these new types of apples are both trademarked and patented. That means many farmers aren't allowed to grow them. NPR's Dan Charles decided to take a bite out of the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: On a quiet hillside, in the apple growing country of Adams County, Pennsylvania, alongside a narrow country road that doesn't see much traffic, Sydney Kuhn has set up a kind of trial orchard. She has about 30 different kind of apples growing here.
SYDNEY KUHN: A lot of these different rows - there might be 10 trees of this and 10 trees of that.
CHARLES: Oh, so it's not even entire rows of anything?
KUHN: Oh, no (laughter). No, no, no, no.
CHARLES: Kuhn's family has been selling apples for five generations. What she takes to farmers' markets these days is a mix of old and new. There's the traditional Mid-Atlantic favorite - Stayman apples. But also newcomers - Goldrush, Zestar!, Pink Lady - plus the variety that changed the apple industry - Honeycrisp.
KUHN: It's incredible. That apple has such a following at this point. And we probably sell two crates of Honeycrisps to the total of all the other varieties at market.
CHARLES: Honeycrisp came from the University of Minnesota. Apple breeders there cross-pollinated different trees, created new genetic combinations and picked this one.
DAVID BEDFORD: I still remember the first day that I tasted it.
CHARLES: David Bedford is one of the university's apple breeders. This apple, he says, was crisp - explosively crisp.
BEDFORD: That texture was so different that I had to pause and kind of think for a minute, you know, is this good? Is this bad?
CHARLES: Consumers decided it was good, so good, in fact, they were willing to pay extra for it. And it dawned on people there might be serious money in new apple varieties. Now there's a race underway to create the next Honeycrisp. One candidate is another product of the University of Minnesota - SweeTango.
BEDFORD: I think this one has all the potential of Honeycrisp. It's actually a child of Honeycrisp.
CHARLES: David Bedford says SweeTango has all the crispness of Honeycrisp plus more flavor. But there's a crucial difference between the way Honeycrisp arrived on the scene and the coming-out parties for SweeTango and many other new varieties. That difference is shaking up the apple industry. Honeycrisp, anybody could grow. You just called up a nursery and ordered your trees. For as long as the patent lasted, the nursery paid a royalty - about a dollar per tree to the University of Minnesota. SweeTango is much more tightly controlled. The University of Minnesota licensed it to a single group of apple growers - 45 of them, mainly, in the states of Washington, Michigan and New York. SweeTango apples come only from those growers, nobody else. They started arriving in stores a few years ago. This is the new trend in apples - more than a dozen of these so-called controlled or club varieties are available or will be soon. They're called club apples because you have to be part of a particular group to grow them. The apples have names like Opal, Kanzi and Ambrosia. Tim Byrne, who's president of the Next Big Thing Cooperative in Minnesota, which controls SweetTango, says there are good reasons for this trend - the first is quality control.
TIM BYRNE: If you have one management company overseeing the whole thing, you get to select the group that you want to manage the commercialization, the growing, the harvesting, the packing.
CHARLES: Also there's control over quantity. You can grow enough, but not so many that you drive down prices. Tim Burns says clubs can organize big marketing campaigns. Nobody did that for varieties that anybody can plant.
BYRNE: If anyone can plant it, why would I put a half a million dollars a year into a marketing campaign - out of my pocket - when anyone else can ride the coattails of that campaign?
CHARLES: One more reason = these controlled varieties aren't just patented, they're trademarked. The Next Big Thing Cooperative, for instance, controls the SweeTango name. Unlike a patent, a trademark never expires. So Next Big Thing could have exclusive rights to sell SweeTango apples forever. This is the future of the apple section in your supermarket, says Tim Byrne. Apple-growing clubs will compete for shelf space.
BYRNE: It is going to be a world of managed brands, just like the soup aisle or the potato chip aisle - or any other aisle.
CHARLES: Now, for a lot of people in the apple industry, this is an unsettling change. Phil Baugher is right in the middle of it. He runs the Adams County nursery in Pennsylvania. When farmers are deciding what apple varieties to grow, they come to him to buy young trees.
PHIL BAUGHER: We'll take a look.
CHARLES: Baugher takes me out to a tree-covered hillside at his nursery. The trees are filled with fruit. That row of trees on the right, Baugher says, that's a variety called Sweetie.
BAUGHER: We can sell that to anybody.
CHARLES: But that one?
BAUGHER: But that one we can't. That one only to the people that are working within managed program.
CHARLES: I'm trying to figure out what this will mean, Baugher tells me. It could be good. Maybe this club arrangement can help promote new apple varieties. We've sometimes failed at that in the past.
BAUGHER: There have been some very, very good apple varieties introduced over the past 30 years that have just never generated any real interest.
CHARLES: On the other hand, what if you're a farmer and your customers want some new apple that you cannot grow? This has, in fact, happened to apple grower Sydney Kuhn.
KUHN: We've actually had customers at market ask us, you know, about SweeTango, and we explain that's a club variety. We cannot be - you know, we are not part of the club, so we cannot grow that apple.
CHARLES: But Kuhn says, I am not really worried. There are still lots of great apples that I can grow. And when I explain the situation to our customers they say...
KUHN: You know, Honeycrisp is just as good, so we'll buy your Honeycrisp.
CHARLES: But she is interested in another new child of Honeycrisp, a variety called EverCrisp. A group of Midwestern apple growers created EverCrisp, and they're managing it a little bit like a club apple, except that if you want to grow this apple, you just sign up and pay dues. This is a club that anybody can join. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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