A group of Minnesota apple growers have filed suit claiming that a Minnesota grower has a near-monopoly on a variety developed using public funding.

Suit filed over SweeTango apple rights

Twenty-six plaintiffs are listed in the suit, filed in Hennepin County court in Minnesota, against Lake City, Minn.-based Pepin Heights Orchard Inc. and the University of Minnesota.

The dispute centers around the SweeTango, a variety developed at the university and licensed to Pepin Heights.

The SweeTango, a cross between the honeycrisp and zestar varieties, has generated “overwhelming demand,” and is a “breakthrough” variety, according to the plaintiff’s complaint.

Not being able to sell it the way they sell other varieties, they claim, will cause them severe economic distress, even putting some growers out of business.

Minnesota growers can grow and sell the SweeTango, but only in a limited way. They can sell it only to Minnesota consumers at farm stands, farmers markets or similar outlets, or through direct-store deliveries.

That prevents them, plaintiffs say, from pooling their production in order to meet the supply requirements of larger retailers and wholesalers.

That gives Pepin Heights an unfair advantage, the suit claims. Because of the SweeTango’s popularity, other shippers will be forced to compete against it with less popular varieties. Minnesota growers also would like to sell SweeTangos outside the state, which they are not allowed to do under the current agreement, said Lisa Bachman, an attorney for the growers.

Other Minnesota growers should have wider access to the variety, the plaintiffs claim, because state funds made up a third of the budget that went into developing the SweeTango.

Pepin Heights officials did not return calls for comment.

A joint project of Pepin Heights and the Next Big Thing Cooperative, the SweeTango is grown commercially by only a handful of U.S. shippers, including Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc.; Fowler Bros. Inc., Wolcott, N.Y.; and Deerfield, Mich.-based Applewood Orchards.

The other growers have exclusive licensing to grow and market the SweeTango in different regions. Stemilt, for example, markets the apple west of the Rockies, said Roger Pepperl, the company’s marketing director.