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Though apples are the nation's most popular fruit, they are relatively worthless in Sonoma County, California. (Patti McConville / Alamy)

California’s Disappearing Apple Orchards

In Sonoma County, apple growers battle against the wine industry and cheap Chinese imports

Sonoma County is among the most esteemed wine-growing areas in the world, but it used to be famous for a different crop. Located just north of San Francisco, this region of rolling hills, vast dairy spreads and conifer forests flanking the coast was once the heart of a thriving apple industry. In its heyday in the early and mid 20th century, more than 13,000 acres of apple orchards blanketed the county. These groves consisted of scores of varieties and supported hundreds of farmers.

But one by one, Sonoma County’s apple farmers are giving up. Though apples are the nation’s most popular fruit, they are relatively worthless in Sonoma County, where wine grapes draw more than ten times the price per ton and where imported apples on local market shelves are often cheaper than locally grown ones. Today, fewer than 3,000 acres of apple trees remain countywide, and just one processing and packing plant is still in business.

“The industry as a whole is almost finished,” says Dave Hale, who began growing apples three decades ago on the outskirts of Sebastopol, a hub of artists, hippies and farmers. Since then, Hale has watched the industry shrink steadily. In 2010, Hale didn’t even bother harvesting his crop of Rome Beauties. The wholesale price for flawless, tree-ripened fruit was barely 6 cents a pound—$125 per ton, two grand an acre. The sodden, spoiled fruits of last year’s fruit linger on the ground.

Hale’s neighbors have already given up. Standing at the southern edge of his 20-acre orchard, Hale peers through a wire fence at the adjacent property. Among the trees, the weeds stand knee-deep; the orchard was last harvested in 2008. New owners are planning to remove the apple trees and replace them with grapevines. This fate is a tirelessly common one in the county, where 56,000 acres of wine grapes crawl up trellises staked into the earth. On the north side of Hale’s farm, the land has already been converted; an apple orchard until seven years ago, it now bears a bucolic sign at the front gate with calligraphic letters reading, “Susanna’s Vineyard.”

Wine grapes are where the money is, and with a ton of Sonoma County grapes going for $2,000 on average, the incentive for apple farmers to switch to grapes or sell out is huge. Farmer Ted Klopt succumbed to this temptation ten years ago, when he was receiving just $120 per ton of apples. He planted his orchards in Pinot Noir grapes. He has no regrets. He says he grew many kinds of apples, which ripened at different times between July and November, keeping him and his crew working steadily throughout the autumn. By contrast, his grapes, when deemed ready for the crush, can be stripped from the vines all at once. “Grapes take less work,” Klopt says. “I can harvest in one or two days instead of over four months, and I get more money.”

The local wine industry’s rise has helped spur the apple industry’s fall, but another force is also at play: global competition and the bizarre economic dynamic that can make goods produced half the world away cheaper than those from down the road. Chile, New Zealand and Australia all export either fresh apples or juice concentrate to the United States. But no nation now plays as pivotal a role in the global apple industry as China. In its northwestern provinces on and around the Loess Plateau, a colossal expansion of apple orchards has occurred since the early 1990s, when China produced about the same amount of apples as America. Today, Chinese apples outnumber American apples seven to one and in 2010 amounted to 36 million tons–roughly half of all apples grown on earth. What’s more, they’re dirt cheap–some less than 2 cents a pound, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

China’s fresh apples are tumbling into foreign markets worldwide, undercutting prices of locally grown fruit. In Australia, the first Chinese apples since the 1920s entered the country in January 2011, raising objections from local industry leaders and farmers, who urged shoppers not to buy them. China’s apples are barred from import into the United States, but not its apple juice concentrate, which is what is crushing Sonoma County’s farmers. This product, often shipped frozen, is the basic ingredient of much of the world’s apple juice and other juice products. China is now the world’s largest exporter of apple juice concentrate, and its biggest buyer is the United States, where two-thirds of all apple juice consumed comes from China.

Lee Walker, a third-generation owner of one of the oldest apple farms in Sonoma County, remembers when the apple business first changed dramatically. “In the 1980s, China started exporting juice concentrate and selling it for half of our price,” Walker says. “We lost our floor.”

The facilities that bought and processed his apples and those of other Sonoma County farmers went under as national produce companies turned increasingly to the cheap concentrate from China, and by 2004, Manzana Products Company, a large gray aerodrome-like facility, was the last processor in town.

Elsewhere, along the roadways and bike paths that cut through the area’s woods, relics of the apple-growing glory days remain: A pair of rail cars once used by an apple shipper lie in a field; a cluster of warehouses, once home to an apple-processing company, contain steel tanks full of wine. And in a tidy suburban cul-de-sac on Gail Lane, old apple trees sprout here and there from the trimmed green lawns, reminders of the day when this was a 20-acre orchard.

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