A corporate giant slams New England apple growers

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These Jonagold apples at Tougas Family Farm, Northborough, Massachusetts, are nearly solid red. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

These Jonagold apples at Tougas Family Farm, Northborough, Massachusetts, are nearly solid red. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

JONAGOLD is one of the finest apples grown in New England. In taste tests, consumers rate it highly — as high as Honeycrisp in some cases. So why is Jonagold so hard to find, especially in supermarkets? It may be due in part to its lackluster name.

But New England’s attempt to reintroduce Jonagold with a new name, JuicyGold, has hit a wall, as a Washington state apple conglomerate with deep pockets has instigated a frivolous lawsuit that would be too costly for New England’s growers to defend.

It is a classic case of a corporate giant (a four-headed monster comprising Custom Orchards, Inc., Starr Ranch Growers, Oneonta Trading Corporation, and Regal Fruit International) trying to crush a tiny competitor located across the country, for no good reason.

Starr Ranch Growers holds the exclusive license to a new apple called Juici! Delite. The variety, a cross of Honeycrisp and Braeburn, was developed by Regal Fruit International, which holds its worldwide propagation rights. Custom Orchards, Inc., owns the trademark. Oneonta Trading Corporation is Juici! Delite’s exclusive marketer. 

In mid-August, Custom Orchards, Inc., launched a lawsuit against the nonprofit New England Apple Association to prevent it from using the name JuicyGold, asserting that it would confuse consumers with Juici! Delite.

Custom Orchard’s complaint lacks merit on several grounds:

“Juicy” is a generic quality of all fruits and vegetables. To suggest that one grower or business has the sole right to use the word “juicy” is as absurd as trying to trademark characteristics like “red” or “crisp.”

The names JuicyGold and Juici! Delite neither look nor sound alike. Starr Ranch misspells “juici!” and adds an exclamation point (at least in some references). Delite is a separate word (and adds a syllable).

The apples do not look alike. The image of Juici! Delite on Starr Ranch’s website shows a roundish apple, mostly red, with prominent white pores, or lenticels. Jonagold is conical in shape; while it can appear nearly solid red, typically it is a blend of red and gold, and its lenticels are muted.

New England-grown Jonagolds are sold in New England. It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which New England Jonagolds would ever be sold in Washington state. In fact, it is unlikely that New England Jonagolds would ever be sold outside the region. New England’s growers are no threat to Starr Ranch.

The trademark owner has already generated confusion of its own. Several online trademark sites list the apple as Juici! Delite. An article in Good Fruit Grower Magazine spells it Juici Delite, without punctuation. The Washington Apple Commission lists it as JUICI! Starr Ranch’s own website has dropped the “Delite” and simply calls it Juici.

But the cost of defending JuicyGold is too great for New England growers to bear. The Association has already spent several thousand dollars in legal fees to defend itself and attempt to negotiate a compromise; thousands more would be needed to contest Custom Orchards’s specious claim. (The Association offered to include “New England” with “JuicyGold,” but this and other attempts to resolve the issue were summarily rejected.)

It is frustrating to find New England’s apple industry under attack from other apple growers. It is infuriating to know that Starr Ranch’s superior financial resources, rather than the merits of the case, have forced New England Apple Association to withdraw its application to trademark “JuicyGold.”

Consumers outraged by Starr Ranch’s bullying behavior can show their support by purchasing New England-grown Jonagolds, and asking for them at their supermarkets, and by refusing to purchase Juici! Delites and any other Starr Ranch products so as not to help fund its efforts to squelch New England apple growers.

Fortunately, both actions are as palatable as they are political. Even without a new name, Jonagold is an outstanding apple nearing the end of its fifth decade. The jury is out on Juici! Delite, which is not expected to arrive in New England for at least another year.

If Juici! Delite is like most of the new varieties hoping to become the next Honeycrisp, its long-range impact will be slight. Starr Ranch’s money can protect the name, but it cannot guarantee a superior apple. 

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Jonagold apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jonagold apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

COMPARISONS between Jonagold and Honeycrisp go beyond flavor. Both have a distinctive, light-crisp texture. Both are exceptionally juicy, especially Jonagold, with drip-down-your-chin juiciness. Both are mostly sweet, although Jonagold has a little more apple flavor, just the hint of a tang. Both are large apples.

Both Jonagold and Honeycrisp have their roots in the 1960s — Honeycrisp at the University of Minnesota in 1961, the product of a cross between Keepsake and an unnamed variety, Jonagold at Cornell University’s New York Agricultural Experiment Station in 1968, a cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious.

Jonagold is a late-season apple, slightly conical in shape like both of its parents, and a striking red-and-gold color (although like Honeycrisp, Jonagold’s color is variable, and can be nearly solid red). Jonathan dates back to New York state in the early 1800s, and is still popular in parts of the Midwest today. It supplies Jonagold’s rich red color. Golden Delicious, discovered in West Virginia in 1890, gives Jonagold its yellow shades.

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THE NAME Jonagold is botanical, a simple, shortened combination of its parents. It lacks the cache of heirlooms like Cortland and McIntosh, which have been staples for so long that people associate them with apples even though the names say nothing about the eating experience.

New, trademarked varieties like Jazz and Envy have generic names that say nothing about an apple; they could describe any product, from sponges to spaghetti. Time will tell if the varieties are special enough to overcome this and become synonymous with apples in future generations (if these varieties survive at all).

Honeycrisp has a name equal to its quality, with each half, “honey” and “crisp,” descriptive of the apple. No one can confuse it with a music genre (Jazz) or “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck” (Envy).

Jonagolds in early September will add color and size before harvest, Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Jonagolds in early September will add color and size before harvest, Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

New England Apple Association’s idea was to reintroduce Jonagold with a new name to encourage consumers to give it a try. The name would help shoppers identify a locally grown New England Jonagold as opposed to one from outside the region.

After months of research and vetting, last fall a marketing consultant came up with a new name for Jonagold: JuicyGold. “Juicy” says something about the experience of eating the apple; “Gold” is a double entendre, referring both to its Golden Delicious parent but also suggesting something of great value, appropriate for this exceptional apple.

Putting the two words together followed a recent trend in apple names, like CrimsonCrisp, PaulaRed, and RubyMac, giving the new name a contemporary feel.

JuicyGold is close enough to Jonagold that it would be less likely to confuse consumers, unlike Mutsu, for instance, a 1930 apple from Japan rechristened Crispin in 1968.

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WHY is the issue of trademarked names so important? New England’s medium to small growers are prohibited from growing and selling most trademarked apples. These new varieties are controlled or managed by growing “clubs,” with strict limits on who can grow them.

In some cases the trademark is owned by a single company or grower, typically from Washington state, which grows about half the United States fresh apple crop. Examples include Lady Alice (owned exclusively by Rainier Fruit Company) and Piñata (Stemilt Growers), although the latter can still be sold under its original names, Corail or Pinova.

Some apple clubs raise promotional funds through their licensing programs, giving them an advantage in the marketplace. SweeTango was introduced amid much fanfare several years ago — its consortium is even named Next Best Thing — but so far its performance has failed to match the hype.

More recently, some apple-growing states are using trademarks to identify apples as their own — and restricting their cultivation accordingly. Two new apples from New York state, SnapDragon and RubyFrost, fit this description, as does EverCrisp in Ohio. These varieties can only be grown and sold by licensed orchards in their respective states.

The jury is out on these new apples — to date, none of them appears to have the potential to become the next Honeycrisp, as their developers hope — but it does create competition for shelf space with locally grown New England apples. There is only so much room in the produce aisles. Only so many new varieties can be accommodated, and trademarked varieties from beyond the region can squeeze out local apples on the strength of their marketing funds.

New England’s apple industry is the “David” among corporate farm “Goliaths.” New England grows less than 2 percent of the nation’s fresh apple crop. Its orchards, most of them family owned, are denied the chance or lack the resources to get in on trademark clubs — even if there were a new variety to merit it.

New England has no apple breeding program of its own. The only way it can develop new varieties is through nature, a chance seedling which might not emerge for decades, if at all.

The strength of the New England apple industry is its varieties — more than 30 grown in commercial quantities, and dozens of rare heirlooms. There is a reason that popular apples like Cortland, Macoun, and McIntosh have been around for a century or more: they have better apple flavor, and the trees produce more consistently and reliably than most of the sugary sweet trademarked varieties.

 

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