The Apple Club

As the saying goes, money doesn’t grow on trees. The idiom is a reference to the notion that one doesn’t have an unlimited amount of money — it’s not like there is a replenishing, free source of money in one’s backyard, throwing off cash.

On the other hands, apples most definitely do grow on trees. And, therefore, you can plant yourself an apple tree or two (or more) and, after a while, you’ll have a replenishing, free source of apples in your backyard. Of course, there are some restrictions here — you have to have enough space, the zoning rules have to allow for it, the climate has to be right, and in some cases, you may need to obtain permission from the inventor of the apple.

No, that’s not a reference to Mother Earth or the deity of your choice. Many apples have inventors — scientists who mix and match cultivars until something tasty and valuable emerges. And sometimes, they don’t let you grow their apples.

To understand why, first, it’s important to recognize that the apples one buys at the grocery store (or picks at an orchard) are specifically bred to be genetically consistent. That’s not accomplished by planting seeds, either, because if you take the seeds from one type apple and plant them, you’re not going to get an apple tree which makes the same type of apple. Apple seeds, like humans, are heterozygous — they’re a mix of the DNA from their two parents. So if you have a tree full of tasty apples, you can’t grow more by simply planting the seeds. Instead, orchardists use a technique called grafting. Stems from one tree are attached to the roots of another tree, and this newly-combined plant will produce the same apples as the one from which the stem came. For example, if you take a stems from a Granny Smith apple tree and graft it onto the roots of an otherwise bare plant, that new, combined plant will yield Granny Smiths.

Going back to the apple creation business: grafting produces apples which have already been invented, but planting seeds is how we get new types (called a “cultivar”) of apples. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, planting seeds is going to yield a pretty terrible fruit. Some are too bitter, some are too soft, others just look funny, etc. For the layperson, that means you’re very unlikely to develop the next great apple simply by throwing seeds on the ground and waiting a few years. For scientists, though, an understanding of the plant’s DNA and the associated traits make apple cultivation into a serious business. If you develop a new, commercially viable apple, you get to patent it, just like any other invention. (Okay, maybe the better word is “discovery,” but “inventing a new apple” sounds so much cooler, right?) And like any other patented invention, others can’t copy it without first obtaining permission from the patent-holder.

That’s what happened in 1960, when researchers at the University of Minnesota developed an apple commercially known as the Honeycrisp. By 1991, the university had obtained a patent on the cultivar, and until the patent expired in 2007 or thereabouts, the university didn’t do much to restrict nurseries from growing the trees. By and large, nurseries were free to do so, but the university collected a royalty of about $1.30 for every Honeycrisp tree sold in the United States. (The apple’s DNA is still patented in some other parts of the world, so U of M still gets some royalties from points outside of America’s borders.) It was a pretty good business, earning the school about $10 million over the life of the patent.

Not bad, but it can get better — as the University of Minnesota is now proving. In 2008, the university developed a new cultivar — bred from Honeycrisps and another cultivar called Zestars — which is sold under the brand name SweeTango (and no, that annoying capitalization is not a typo). SweeTango are noted for being very crispy, very juicy, and have a built-in cinnamon-like taste when you bite into one; they are widely considered to provide a very high quality eating experience.

But they are not widely eaten. Unlike Honeycrisps, which anyone willing to pay the royalty could obtain, SweeTango trees are only available to a select group of growers who belong to a “club” — in this case, the Next Big Thing apple cooperative. The cooperative, consisting of about 45 growers across the states of Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Washington (as well as two others in Canada), are the only ones authorized to purchase SweeTango-producing trees, and, therefore, are effectively the only source of SweeTango apples in North America.

This isn’t necessarily a cash-grab, though. NPR talked with Tim Byrne, the president of the Next Big Thing cooperative, and he offered three reasonable-sounding benefits to this approach to apple-licensing. First, there’s quality control — the quality of Honeycrisps tended to vary dramatically, due to the diversity of places they were grown and the care given to the trees. Second, Byrne cited the standard monopolistic advantages of being able to control supply (and, therefore, the price — okay, so there was a cash-grab aspect to it). And finally, there’s the unique problems with getting consumers interested in a brand new type of apple:

Perhaps most important, Byrne says, is the ability to organize marketing campaigns that convince consumers to buy the variety, and stores to stock it. Nobody did that for previous varieties, because anyone could plant them.

“If anyone can plant [a new variety], why could I put half a million dollars into a marketing campaign, out of my pocket, when everyone else can ride the coattails of that campaign?” says Byrne.

Because, after all, money doesn’t grow on trees.



Bonus Fact: American folklore tells the story of Johnny Appleseed, who travelled the country planting apple seeds in order to spread the popularity of the fruit. Given the fact that this would lead to a lot of gross-tasting apples, that can’t be true, and, like most legends, it isn’t. According to the Straight Dope, Appleseed (really John Chapman) wasn’t trying to get people to eat healthier. He was helping them get drunk. At the time, most apples were turned into hard cider or applejack, and a plentiful amount of apples in the American frontier — even those which weren’t palatable for eating — made these drinks readily available.

From the ArchivesEsopus Spitzenburg and the Newtown Pippin: Apples, both.

RelatedSeven pounds of Honeycrisps. It’s harder to find SweeTangos, as one would expect.