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Published June 30, 2010, 08:00 AM

Growers: Takes more than 2 to SweeTango

The deal just seemed wrong to Vince Steffen.

By: Mike Longaecker, The Republican Eagle

The deal just seemed wrong to Vince Steffen.

The Mazeppa apple grower said an agreement between the University of Minnesota and Lake City-based Pepin Heights Orchard unfairly restricts the production of a highly coveted apple.

"It makes a big disadvantage," he said Tuesday. "It just doesn't seem to be the right way to do things to Minnesota growers."

Steffen joined a group of 26 Minnesota apple growers suing Pepin Heights and the university, claiming the agreement limits their ability to sell and distribute the SweeTango apple, a cross between the Honeycrisp and Zestar varieties.

The lawsuit, filed June 16 in Hennepin County District Court, could be moved to federal court, according to a Fourth Judicial District spokeswoman.

The agreement calls for Pepin Heights to be the primary marketing and production creature for the apple, set to make its market splash this fall.

Other Minnesota growers can - and have - been producing the SweeTango, but the agreement prohibits them from selling to wholesalers or pooling production to wholesale the apple.

"The only manner by which plaintiffs can sustain their business is by selling SweeTango to large wholesalers or retailers," the civil complaint states.

Two Lake City growers, however, would be allowed to pool apple harvests under the agreement, the complaint states. Richard Bremer, owner of a 30-acre apple orchard, and Charles Bremer, owner of Bridal Rock Orchard, received the special permission.

Richard Bremer referred calls to the attorney handling the suit, Lisa Lamm Bachman.

The suit claims the effort to restrict pooling was specifically intended to limit the business of Wescott Orchards and Agri Products - two plaintiffs in the case. Bachman said the special Bremer pooling exception prohibits distribution involving Wescott Orchards and Agri Products.

The other growers also are limited by how many trees they may raise containing the SweeTango.

Bachman said some of the plaintiffs already have lost wholesale accounts following last year's introduction of SweeTango.

The apple is considered by the growers to be the next big hit in the apple industry.

"SweeTango has been released to consumers in a limited demand and already has generated overwhelming demand," the complaint states.

The suit claims a 2009 advanced marketing campaign between the university and Pepin Heights proclaimed SweeTango "the Honeycrisp killer" - a reference to the popular apple variety.

Since the growers help provide university funding, "we should have some of the benefits of that product," Steffen said.

The suit states that Pepin Heights in 2006 formed a cooperative dubbed "The Next Best Thing," which consists of growers in five states including Minnesota and two Canadian provinces. The cooperative's purpose is to grow and market SweeTango, according to the suit.

Pepin Heights owner Dennis Courtier was not available for comment, an orchard employee said Tuesday.

According to the complaint, the university's development team is to receive 33 percent of the apple's sales royalties. Another one-third of royalties goes to the university's research office, while 25 percent goes to the university's department that supported creation of the apple's intellectual property.

The final 8 percent goes to the apple creator's college, the complaint states.

No court date has been scheduled yet, Bachman said.

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