By Heidi Lewis
In September, when apple season is just hitting its zenith in most of the country, the harvest is already fading in Sonoma County, CA, where the Gravenstein Apple reigns supreme. The Grav (as it’s known) is one of the earliest apples to appear in the market; it’s ready to harvest in August.
The Gravenstein’s hometown of Sebastopol has taken on the mission of saving this heirloom apple from obscurity. Slow Food Russian River chapter volunteers and farmers have banded together to promote the Gravenstein as an exemplar of biodiversity and local food security.
Since 2006 The FruitGuys has supported these efforts by offering a special Gravenstein box in August (See “Save the Gravenstein”). The Gravenstein Box makes it possible for apple lovers nationwide to have access to this special fruit. In addition, The FruitGuys gives back 16 percent of the proceeds from sales to Gravenstein farmers to help keep this heirloom apple thriving. This year, the giveback totaled $1,773, which was distributed to farmers Stan Devoto, Dave Hale, and Lee Walker. Here is a peek at their farms.
Walker Apples: A True Family Farm
The Walker Apples family farm has been supplying Gravenstein apples to The FruitGuys since 2006. Lee Walker’s family has been growing apples in Sebastopol since 1850. One of his ancestors was one of the first non-natives to discover Yosemite and another settled in Sebastopol, raising some of the first Gravensteins on a 7,000-acre ranch. Nowadays parcels are much smaller, and selling a specialized short-season apple is much harder.
Although he’s now in his 80s, Lee still works the ranch (see “Ode to a Grav Farmer”), as do his adult children. Barbara Walker, his daughter-in-law, told The FruitGuys that “Lee got really excited when he saw the Bank of America spot. He remembers when you guys started out.”
Lee has been a huge supporter of the Slow Food Russian River Gravenstein Apple Presidia. It was his idea to put up a big banner in the center of Sebastopol announcing the “Gravensteins Are Coming!” which was then replaced with “The Gravensteins Are Here!” at the onset of the harvest. It stirred a lot of town pride and helped market the apples.
Hale’s Apple Farm: A Sebastopol Icon
The roadside farm stand for Hale’s Apple Farm is iconic. An image of the red clapboard barn with antique tractor overflowing with apples must exist in the photo collections of nearly every Sonoma County tourist. Dave Hale is a fifth-generation farmer; his barn is a genuine family heirloom.
Hale grows numerous apple varieties, including red and green Gravensteins, the precious Pink Pearl (a pink-fleshed apple), his own variety called Sleeping Beauty, and a smattering of others. Apples are his main, but not his only crop; Dave has also planted cucurbit (squash) plants between the trees. This way the fallen apples and water from tree irrigation feed the growing butternut, acorn, speckled swans, and turban squashes. Come fall, when the apple season wanes, a colorful array of gourds and squash keeps the farm stand open and attracts more visitors–and photographers (see also “Hale’s Apple Farm”).
Behind Dave’s calm countenance is a fierce farmer. He has been very vocal about how lower-priced imported apples are elbowing out local farmers, as well as how encroaching vineyards drive up land prices and price out farms. Dave’s farm is now surrounded on all side by new vineyards–a constant reminder of the hard economics of heirloom apples in Sonoma County.
Devoto Gardens: The Farm on the Hill
Devoto Gardens is perched atop Gold Ridge hill. Owner Stan Devoto knows he has it good and seems very grateful for the plentiful sunshine that ripens his apples. He grows organic. His orchards are also beautified by flowers, which he sells in his cut flower business.
Stan is a collector of apple varieties. The farm already has 2,700 trees, but he’s very excited about a new plot he just planted with two dozen heirloom varieties from the UK, France, and the East Coast. The purchase of many of the new seedlings he attributes to his share from The FruitGuys Grav Box give back.
Apples and apple products are a family affair for the Devotos. Besides the fresh apples, Stan’s daughter Jolie and her husband Hunter Wade are producing an artisanal apple cider. Making local cider is another way to make a livelihood from apples. It also is a great way to use tart varieties–like the Gravenstein.