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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

Farmer Gene Calvi lives here. While he has maintained the six acres of trees behind his home, his neighbors have removed nearly all their apple trees over the past 30 years and replaced them with neat hedges, rock gardens and grassy lawns. Calvi thinks that Sonoma County’s apple industry may be doomed. “I just don’t see what can keep it together,” he says. Calvi notes that Manzana was recently offering farmers $45 per ton for bruised or otherwise damaged “vinegar apples.”

“It costs me about $40 per ton to pay my sons to clean them up,” Calvi says. “That leaves me five bucks per ton.”

The juice price, he says, is usually about $150 per ton of apples. The best price of all, though, comes from fresh, undamaged apples sold directly off the farm, which can draw a dollar or more per pound—grape prices, no less. “The only thing is, you need to bring in the shoppers,” Calvi says, “and I just can’t, so I sell for juice.”

Other area apple farmers are also innovating to survive: They are selling their fruit fresh as often as possible to draw the best prices, with self-pick arrangements, often announced via cardboard signs along the highway, increasingly common. Many farmers have become certified organic to merit a still higher per-pound price.

Paul and Kendra Kolling, who manage and harvest 75 acres of organic apple trees countywide and own the juice and sauce label Nana Mae’s Organics, simply can’t sell all their fruit and products to local buyers. So two years ago, the pair began selling their apple sauce and juice straight back across the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan, where a small niche of moneyed consumers eagerly seeks higher-end food products.

“It’s crazy what’s happened,” Kendra Kolling says. “Everyone here is buying Chinese apples, and so now we’re selling these local apples back to Taiwan because we have to.”

In some parts of the world, apple juice means hard cider, a fermented drink usually containing 5 to 10 percent alcohol. Englishman Jeffrey House remembers first visiting Sonoma County in the early 1990s. He was struck by the extensive apple orchards, which reminded him of home. “You could go all the way to the coast in those days and not see any grapevines,” he recalls. “It looked just like England out here with all these apples, and I couldn’t believe that no one was making cider.”

So in 1994 he settled here and began making his own under a brand called Ace. He used Granny Smith, Gravenstein, Jonathan and other varieties from local farmers. Even as late as 2004, House says, he was using all locally grown fruit.

But things changed. Ace, now located in an industrial lot beside Gravenstein Highway, has grown tremendously, by 48 percent last year alone. Local apple production, meanwhile, has steadily diminished, and today, to keep the fermentation tanks filled and the bottling line in motion, House mostly buys apples from, as he says, “other places.” And so the delivery trucks come regularly from lands far away. Just southeast of Sebastopol, the trucks enter the old apple country, past orchards littered with fallen fruits, overgrown with weeds and even slated for removal, past Apple Blossom Lane, and finally, with a hard left turn, in through the chain-link gate of the warehouse complex that Ace Cider calls home.

“Local apples cost too much,” House says. Still, the circumstances have him a bit mystified. “The apples are falling on the ground out there,” he observes, “and here we have to buy apples from other places. It defies economics.”

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