How Sweet It Is

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How Sweet It Is

Scott Swindeman of Applewood Orchards is one of the growers involved in the Next Big Thing co-op for SweeTango.
Scott Swindeman of Applewood Orchards is one of the
growers involved in the Next Big Thing co-op for SweeTango.

Too many times, when you hear something dubbed “the next big thing,” the thing in question fails to meet expectations. However, if the developers of the new SweeTango apple variety have their way, they will hopefully be able to buck that trend.

Scott Swindeman and the folks at Applewood Orchards Inc. in Deerfield, MI, certainly believe this will be the case. Applewood Orchards is part of a select group of growers who are producing SweeTango, the Honeycrisp/Zestar! cross that was developed by breeders at the University of Minnesota. Originally known as MN 1914, SweeTango is a managed variety that will be commercialized by (appropriately) the Next Big Thing, a cooperative made up of 45 partners in seven different states and Canadian provinces. For more information on how this marketing plan is being carried out, check out our Q&A with Next Big Thing president Tim Byrne.

So how were the growers chosen to be a part of the Next Big Thing? For Applewood Orchards, it was a matter of location and simply knowing the right people. Applewood Orchards, located in the Southeast corner of Michigan, is a vertically integrated grower/packer/shipper/marketer of about 500 acres of apples. “Our growing season is a little bit longer than some of the other areas of our state,” says Swindeman. “With our growing conditions, we’re able to grow larger fruit than common in Michigan.”

Another Grower’s Perspective

Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, NY, is another of the growers involved in the Next Big Thing, the co-op responsible for marketing SweeTango. Owner Rod Farrow says they were interested early on, and became a partner from the beginning.

Farrow planted about 28 acres of SweeTango on super spindle in the spring of 2008, and second-leaf production netted about 800 bushels. “We’ve noticed lots of similarities to Honeycrisp, although we have not seen the incidences of bitter pit,” says Farrow. “It has a similar growth habit, and wants to produce a lot of horizontal fruiting branches.” Overall, Farrow says it’s been pretty grower-friendly, and has been both fruitful and precocious. There may be a few russetting issues to be worked out, although Farrow says this may be a genetic trait.

As for knowing the right people, it was a matter of competition breeding cooperation. Applewood Orchards has long been considered a friendly competitor with Pepin Heights Orchards, the Lake City, MN-based grower licensed by the University of Minnesota to commercialize SweeTango (the Next Big Thing was borne out of Pepin Heights because the company felt it couldn’t manage and commercialize SweeTango on its own, says Byrne). “We saw growers like Applewood Orchards and others as good competitors who put out a good product,” says Byrne. “Why not have them on your team?”
Swindeman and his son Michael attended an initial co-op meeting on April 24, 2006, in Minneapolis. “I was impressed with the way the program was going to be put together, and especially the talent of the other growers I saw in the room,” says Swindeman. “I said to myself, we need to be a part of this.”

Buying In

The growers who are members of the Next Big Thing agree on a specific number of bushels they will produce. From there, it’s a matter of analyzing your own operation and deciding what planting system, what rootstock, and how much acreage you will need to reach that magic number. In the case of Applewood Orchards, they started by planting 14 acres of SweeTango in the spring of 2008. Everything was trellis-planted on Bud 9, at a little more than 1,000 trees per acre.

The trees were only at second leaf in 2009, so it’s a bit too early to determine what type of packout the trees will produce. But Swindeman can already make some observations. “It loves to set fruit — there’s no question about that.” In these early years, Swindeman is committed to making sure they are able to grow the trees before they start setting too much fruit. “We’re a little concerned about cropping the tree too early and shutting it down, and not filling space in the row,” he notes.

While it’s in the rear view mirror, there are some things Swindeman would consider doing over if he had the chance. “We may have gone to a more vigorous rootstock,” he says. In addition, while the trees were planted on replant ground, they may have performed better on virgin soil, says Swindeman.
In the next couple of years, Swindeman will continue to monitor cropping levels and will watch out for any noticeable trends in terms of disease susceptibility, preharvest drop, and other features. As an experienced grower, he’s confident they’ll be able to work out any of the kinks in producing the apple.

When it comes time for the apple to hit the market, he’s perhaps even more confident, thanks partially to the parentage of SweeTango. “I think Honeycrisp has made apple eaters out of people who weren’t necessarily apple eaters in the past,” he says. “They’d eat an apple now and then, but now that they’ve got their hands on Honeycrisp and now SweeTango, they literally go nuts over them.”

The success of SweeTango will ultimately depend on how it is marketed, and in this area Swindeman has no reservations. “It’s not only the apple, it’s also the whole group involved in it,” he says. “It’s a great group of growers all working together as a team. That’s a neat thing.”

Brian Sparks is editor of American Fruit Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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