Hale’s Apple Farm

Sonoma County Apple Veteran Dave Hale
By Heidi Lewis

In Fall, you can’t miss the explosion of roadside color that is Hale’s Apple  Farm as you drive along Route 116 just north of Sebastopol, CA. The  riot of piles of brilliant gourds can cause the unwary traveler to swerve.  Best pull over for a better look. Orange and white pumpkins of all sizes;  butternut, acorn, speckled swans, and turban squash are all artfully draped  in trees or applied as humorous accents to antique farm equipment in front  of the picture-perfect redwood barn.

This picturesque barn is the HQ for Dave Hale’s farm. Dave has been an  apple farmer for 30 years in Sebastopol (Sonoma County)  and has seen the apple industry come and go over the years, mostly go.  Falling apple prices, rising grape prices, and encroaching development  have all contributed to the downsizing of small farms. In the old days, Dave  used to farm 90 acres. Now he is down to 20.

2010 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Dave had worked hard  for years growing apples for market and watching apple prices continue  to drop until he could just make enough to pay his workers. The final blow  came when a large corporate apple processor offered $125 a ton for his  tree-ripened apples, that’s a puny 6 cents a pound. “That was it,” Dave  recalled. “I said, ”˜I’m done with corporations.’” Dave then cut back to direct  sales: he only sells out of his farm stand (open August through November),  the Palo Alto Farmers’ Market (where he has sold for 27 years), a few  restaurants, and to “good companies like you guys” [The FruitGuys].

Endangered Farmers”¦
Apple farmers like Hale have become an endangered species in Sonoma  County. Rising land values, vineyards replacing orchards, and cheap apple  imports have driven his kind to the brink of extinction. Many farmers have  had to supplement their orchard operations by turning over at least part  of their land to grape growing. The maintenance cost is less and the price  per ton is about 100 times higher than apples. In 1937, Sonoma County  had an estimated 17,000 acres of apple orchards, the region’s growers  boomed from supplying World War II troops with applesauce, but has  declined ever since. Today there are just some 2,300 acres. The last 20  years has seen a vineyard boom for the county: about 60,000 acres worth.

“How can you compete?” Dave asks, holding up a $60 crate of beautiful  red Rome apples. “When a box this size of wine goes for $200?”

Yet, wine grapes are for drinking, not eating. And Dave’s lovely apples are  delicious eating. He grows Gravensteins, the hallmark apple of the region,  but is famous for his Pink Pearl apple. The Pink Pearl has a surprise  inside: flamingo pink flesh. He also grows Romes, one he has re-named  “Sleeping Beauty” because so many people remarked that it looked like  the apple in the fairy tale. “They would say Sleeping Beauty’s apple, but  meant the story of Snow White. People get their Disney mixed up,” Dave  notes. This iconic red apple is the princess at his farm stand, crisp and  sweet, with a bit of red striation inside.

Dave Hale proudly shows off the tree he’s going pick the next day for The  FruitGuys. A lovely tree festooned with striped Rome apples. He snaps  one off, polishing it on his shirt. Beyond his fence, rows of just harvested  grapevines can be seen with barren earth between.

Back at the barn, Dave straightens up buckets of sunflowers for sale,  answers questions about gourds, and weighs apples for customers. One  buys some fresh apple juice, shakes Dave’s hand and says, “Thanks for  not growing grapes.”

“I get that a lot,” Dave says.

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Hale’s Farm stand is open 9am-6pm daily August through Thanksgiving.  526 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol, CA 95472.

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The FruitGuys Magazine is your source for workplace culture, trends, and healthy living. Previously known as The FruitGuys Almanac, the Magazine began in 2007. Editors and contributors include nationally known journalists and food writers. Submissions and suggestions can be sent to the editor.