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Area apple grower happy with SweeTango settlement

LAKE CITY — An area orchard owner says he's relieved about a recent deal to settle a lawsuit challenging his licensing agreement for the hot-selling SweeTango apple with the University of Minnesota.

"This was, in no uncertain terms, vandalism by litigation and nothing more," says Dennis Courtier of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City and the organizer of a North American  cooperative of SweeTango growers.

Working with the University of Minnesota, Coutier raised the early trees in Lake City and gave the apple the name of SweeTango. The university awarded exclusive SweeTango rights to Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, which organized a cooperative of growers across the northern states and southern Canada to market the variety.

More than a dozen other growers, mostly in Minnesota, sued last year, saying they were frozen out of a lucrative deal that unfairly denied them access to an apple developed by their own land-grant university.

Details of deal

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Much of the lawsuit was dismissed previously. An agreement for a settlement for the remaining pieces was reached about a month ago. That settlement, obtained by the Associated Press prior to being approved by a judge, will allow more Minnesota orchards to lease SweeTango trees and for the number of trees an orchard can grow to incrementally increase during the next five years.

The agreement calls for dismissing the case with prejudice. The plaintiffs are required to pay $25,000 for Pepin Heights' legal fees.

"That is just a portion of our fees," says Courtier.

Attorney Lisa Lamm Bachman told the Associated Press the growers who filed the lawsuit were "disappointed but moving forward." She said they made a business decision to settle rather than appeal a judge's February ruling that upheld the university's right to award the exclusive license.

"What's important here, what this lawsuit did do, is it did result in making more trees available for more apple growers throughout the state of Minnesota," Bachman said.

Growing variety

SweeTango's popularity is predicted to exceed the wildly lucrative HoneyCrisp variety, which earned the university more than $8 million in royalties before its U.S. patent expired. SweeTango is a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar, another U of M apple.

This year's harvest produced about three times the volume of last years, says Courtier. He declined to give specific numbers. The variety is in its third year of commercial development.

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"They are still very much ramping up," says Courtier, who says about 900,000 trees have been planted in North America so far.

The university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, told the Associated Press that the resolution to this case reaffirms the school's ability to license a wide variety of intellectual property, such as medical breakthroughs and mining technology.

Except for growers who belong to the cooperative, called Next Big Thing, the settlement allows only Minnesota orchards to be licensed to lease the Minneiska trees that grow the SweeTango-trademarked apples.

The settlement raises in steps the maximum number of Minneiska trees an orchard can grow from 1,000 to 3,000 by 2017, with the total number of trees allowed increasing from 50,000 to 150,000 statewide.

Orchards outside the cooperative still will be limited to selling the apples at their own stands, at farmers markets and to local stores. They won't be allowed to pool crops to amass quantities large enough to interest wholesalers, which had been a key goal of the lawsuit.

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