Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Clubs and the future of apples

For must-read apple journalism look no further than the November 21 issue of the New Yorker, where John Seabrook explores apples and the American apple industry.

His "Crunch" includes an engaging description of the modern apple-breeding program of the University of Minnesota, touching on the phenomenal success of UMinn's Honeycrisp and giving us a farmer's-eye view of the apple business.

This telling quote from Dennis Courtier, a Minnesota orchardist: "It doesn't matter if the apple is green on the inside, when the market is telling you that color is more important than taste."

Taste matters a lot to Courtier, whom Seabrook says teamed up with UMinn in the 80s to become the largest Honeycrisp grower in the state.

Indeed Courtier frets that market preferences for looks over flavor already threaten to deform Honeycrisp, as they so dreadfully degraded Red Delicious.

Honeycrisp's chosen successor is Sweetango, a UMinn Honeycrisp x Zestar cross. Seabrook's obvious relish for Sweetango is infectious (my own review is forthcoming), but what is particularly intriguing is what he has to say about the economic arrangement for growing, selling, and marketing this variety.

As a so-called club apple, rights to grow and sell are limited to an exclucive consortium of farms; a share of licensing fees are directed into impressive marketing efforts.

Sweetango (actually SweeTango™) is a trademark; it's true name is Minneiska. When its patent expires in in 2026 the consortium will still retain control of the name by which the public knows this apple.

Economists will recognize this as a profit-maximizing cartel, but to Courtier and others the exclusivity of the club also promises enough clout to protect Sweetango's quality and the purity of its flavor from the tyranny of the market.

Seabrook airs some grievances from a farmer outside of the consortium, asks if this arrangement is worth the candle, and finally eats a Sweetango with a gusto that seems to say, you betcha. But I have my own observations and questions about this practice. (Update: I've moved them here.)

Finally, two notes. It's flattering that Seabrook has shared some of his observations about apples in comments elsewhere on this blog.

His enthusiasm for Sweetango especially excites envy of his access to top-notch examples of that variety. Also, there's a great deal more in his delightful and thoughtful Crunch than I have touched on here.

Second, it is interesting to see that the New Yorker's stylebook apparently preserves commercial artifacts such as the internal capital T in Sweetango.

The stodgy managing editor here at Adam's Apples is not on board with this, but it's one of those close calls. I am however glad that the magazine did not add the trademark exclamation point, mid-sentence, at the end of Zestar!


  1. Glad you noted our restraint on the exclamation point Adam. It was in there until the final closing meeting when we thought - nah....I actually was surprised the NYer when with the uppercase T. I suppose the argument is FedEx and BlackBerry and PowerBook (from Apple!), so why not SweeTango. Hmmm...still, do we really need to typographically brand apples?

  2. John, there's clearly a strong case to be made for internal capitals. I see that the Chicago Manual of Style has come around to that point of view, so maybe I will too! (After all, McIntosh, etc.)

    Still glad your shop left off the gratuitous punctuation mark.

  3. John, as an apple grower in Minnesota I was very disappointed with the lack of perspective in your article. Do you realize that David Courtier has also created a monopoly within the Minnesota apple market, forcing other apple growers out of the market by only allowing Sweetango in grocery stores if they only sold his apples? I would hardly call interpret Courtier's actions as "visionary" but rather greedy.

    thank you.

  4. I would say the main benefit to these club apples seems to be the ability to control market share and monopolize profits. While we are free to make a profit in business, there are different ways to get a black number at the bottom of the corporate income statement.

    I am sure some would say that by controlling the product you are protecting your asset and are able to deliver a consistently excellent product to the consumer. But is the control for better products or better profits?

    Profits and yields drive agriculture. Increse yields and increase profits. But who is seeing the increase in profits? Seed and chemical companies seem to do ok when input costs rise. Large crop operations do better since they are able to buy inputs in bulk. But what about the rest of us. What do we lose?

    Commecially controlled crops squeeze away our bio-diversification, consumer choices, family farms, small orchards and control over the main food crop. GMO seed and chemical agriculture is a very new form of farming. The traditional agricultural system was quickly changed in the 20th century by the desire to increase revenue no matter the consequences. Many farmers bought the increase yield/increase profit marketing from the seed and chemical companies and rightly so. I have no doubt that most folks thought that an increase in yields would be good for all. But as we have seen, the family farms of America are on life support. How long will it be until large orchards with exclusive rights to grow commercially controlled apples do the same to smaller orchards? The problem to me is ownership.

    Who owns a seed? Who owns a tree? There wasn't an ownership question when one planted an open pollinated seed of corn in the ground. Modified seeds and apple cultivars controlled by corporatations are not that different are they?

    The supermaket is controlled by corporations not farmers and orchadists. The game of growing food has changed. I have tried some of the club apples and they are quite tasty. But at what cost?

    I passed up the Pinata apples at my grocery store and instead bought local Pinovas (same apple cultivar) from our local orchard when they were in season. I am glad some orchards were able to obtain and grow Pinovas before they were magically changed to *poof* Pinatas (same apple!). I would rather have a relationship with my apple grower, with my farmer and support them rather than be fed by C-Corps.

    By the way, the Pinovas from the local orhcard cost more than the glossy giant Pinatas at the grocery store. But the Pinovas are fresh and taste amazing. That orchard also offers 50 other varieties of apples and pears, most of which I cannot find in a grocery store. So what is the real cost of food. Is profit better than bio-diversity? Do we eat better than our families that went through the Great Depression did?


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