On the miracle of the Honeycrisp apple

As someone who grew up in a community known as the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), I can’t say I was that impressed the first time I bit into a Honeycrisp apple, the official fruit of Minnesota thanks to a group of fourth-graders who were more impressed than I was.

It’s hard for any fruit to live up to the Honeycrisp hype, or perhaps by the time I got around to having one, it had been cross-pollinated into just another apple.

But, Planet Money says in its last “Shorts” episode of the season, the Honeycrisp will always be the apple that did what no other apple has ever done: it freed apples from being just another apple.

It’s a nice tale, indeed, with the appropriate recognition of the state that lies just west of Wisconsin. But we remain troubled by the 2013 warning from Mother Jones that the very “miracle” that the Honeycrisp and SweeTango provided, threatens the biodiversity and future of apples varieties.

It was a profile of John Bunker of Maine, the “Apple Whisperer,” who tries to preserve what was once thousands of apple varieties in the United States before they become biologically extinct. Many already are commercially extinct.

..many of the new apples being released, like the SweeTango, are “club apples”—intellectual property of those who bred them. Growers must sign a contract that specifies how the trees will be grown and where they can be sold, and they must pay annual royalties on every apple. The days of farmers controlling their own apples may be numbered, and the idea of breaking that chain of knowledge bothers Bunk.

“When you and I interact, our ability to be together on Earth is predicated by all the stuff that people did for thousands of years,” he says. “You and I didn’t invent language. You and I didn’t invent clothes, roads, agriculture. It’s up to us to be not just the receivers of what was given to us, but the givers of whatever’s going to come next.

That is to say: our apple history — our apples! — should belong to the planet, not to the patent office.

  • MrE85

    Clever video.

  • Gary F

    When my dad bought his Richfield home in 1965, the previous owner was a fruit tree researcher at the U of MN. We had one pear, one cherry and five apple trees in our backyard, all hybrids. The one I remember the most, was mostly green, as large as a softball, and had a similar taste to the Honeycrisp. I bet I didn’t eat an apple for 10-12 years I was so sick of them. And sick up having to pick up the duds that fall so you could mow the lawn, or play wiffleball, and the wasps. Then gradually coming back to actually liking them, now that there are different varieties.

  • Matt

    I could be wrong, but Honeycrisp hasn’t had patent protection for almost ten years, so anyone who wants can buy and grow them now. SweeTango’s patent is set to expire in 2028, barring changes to patent law, and any new varieties are subject to the same limits. So, I can’t say I’m all that worked up about it, unless they do to patent law what Disney did to copyright.

    • Matthew

      Planet Money did a full podcast about this a few years ago (presumably inspiring the video). The trend now is to trademark the name, instead-of or in-addition-to patenting the plant itself, because trademarks can be renewed indefinitely and in perpetuity (as long as you continue to use and protect the trademark).

      • jon

        yeah but that’s easy to get around, look up the honey crunch apple…

        • Anon

          Honeycrunch was actually intentionally launched in Europe in order to help honeycrisp gain traction there, and was done so by the University of Minnesota, not some other group looking to cash in from an expired patent. The statement about trademarks being renwable is correct, and trademarks help ensure that consumers receive high quality apples every time they buy one, keeping consumers happy and producing a consistent product!

  • RBHolb

    I don’t know if this is mentioned in the video, but the problem with all apples that are grown for eating is that they do not grow that way naturally. They are the result of taking shoots from one or more trees that produced good-tasting apples (plant the seeds from your Honeycrisp, and you may or may not get something edible). What this means is that apples do not co-evolve to develop protections from hazards or predators, so they are all headed for extinction unless they are carefully protected.

    The apples Mr. Chapman planted were used to make hard cider or applejack. Can’t say that I would have objected.

    • Anon

      Apple trees actually grow just fine without grafting, and grafting is a natural process found in nature! Non-grafted trees grow large and produce fruit after ~10 years and taste just the same as if they were grafted. Grafting on to rootstock can prevent trees from growing unmanageably large and can encourage fruit to be produced after ~3-5 years, shortening the waiting time. You are correct that the seeds of the honeycrisp often do not produce trees with good tasting fruit, and this is why varieties are grafted- to obtain more trees with the same good tasting fruit! Co-evolution of pathogens and hosts is a very slow process, and breeders are making active efforts to ensure that they are breeding for natural pathogen and pest resistance. I’m happy to see interest in apples and apple breeding 🙂

  • Guest

    The metro area and northern Iowa had a very vibrant apple orchard industry. Lotsa small orchards. When the freezing rain of a the “Armistice Day Blizzard” coated the limbs and caused them to break off many orchards went out of business. The industry that grew up around all the orchards withered away too.

    One day’s weather can kill an industry.

  • Guest

    Folks are free to grow anything without patent protection.

    It most likely won’t be as profitable……THAT is why folks agree to use X seeds from owner Y and Y searches long and hard for a better solution than currently exists.

  • Josh D.

    While I’d tend to agree that plant patents are out of control and favor profits over people, in my mind there are some positive aspects to the protective story of Honeycrisp and SweeTango. While Honeycrisp was under protection, they were amazing. Nearly every apple a taste explosion that blew most other apples away. Now look at them: they’re everywhere, out of season, often over watered to a point of gargantuan fruit size with a shell of the flavor they once had. Now try a SweeTango, still under protection, only available in fall when their peak flavor shines (also a few in spring that are grown in New Zealand), grown in the way that yields a product that made them worthy of name recognition. Who can blame the U for wanting to protect the years/decades long investment it takes to come out with an apple like this? I don’t know where the best compromise lies, but I can certainly appreciate both sides of the argument on this one. (I have no connection to the U or apple producers, I just appreciate a great apple when I taste one)