“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
—Martin Luther (1483–1546, a German monk and church reformer)
In a world awash with Red Delicious apples grown for their size, color, durability, and profitability—but definitely not their flavor—keeping heirloom apple varieties alive is vitally important. In Sebastopol, CA (Sonoma County), a consortium of growers, producers, and other apple fans have come together under the auspices of the Slow Food movement to save the region’s signature apple—the Gravenstein.
For nearly a decade, this corps of volunteers have staffed the Gravenstein Apple Presidia, a project of Slow Food USA run by the Slow Food Russian River chapter. Presidia are Slow Food projects that assist artisan producers that maintain agricultural biodiversity.
“They have been working together for nine years promoting the historic Sebastopol apple orchards, with a major focus on the iconic Gravenstein apple and the farmers who have been tending them for generations,” says Paula Shatkin, Presidium Coordinator. The group also works with Cittaslow Sebastopol, an outgrowth of the Slow Food movement whose mission is to keep the town “green, local, friendly, and artistic.”
The Presidium, which dubs itself the “Apple Core,” promotes this special apple with activities and events, especially the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair, (August 10-11, 2013) a two-day hoedown stuffed with music, food, cider, kids’ activities, a parade, and more. A much-anticipated event in this agricultural community, a prominent downtown banner announces, “The Gravensteins are coming.”
The apples are still basking in the July sun and being sweetened by its cool evenings, but soon they’ll be ready for picking. That’s when a different banner will be hung across Sebastopol’s main thoroughfare, this one proclaiming, “The Gravensteins are here!”
Aside from the apple fair, the Apple Core also hosts information booths at area farmers markets, where it gives free apple and apple juice samples while relaying the stories of Grav farmers. Sebastopol’s library, town hall, many businesses, and even the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa will feature crates of free Gravenstein apples. It also works with a network of chefs in Sonoma County and beyond so restaurants can easily source these short-season apples, which are treasured for baking and eating.
Why Save the Gravenstein?
What inspires a group of people to mobilize around an apple? For many of these volunteers, the Gravenstein Apple is the canary in the coalmine. Keeping a local variety alive strengthens biodiversity, the local economy, and regional culture.
Sonoma County is home to a booming wine industry. Grapes now dominate the farm landscape, providing 71 percent of the county’s $821 million agricultural value for 2012. But it was once apple land, with orchards, apple processors, and trains to ship out apple products for WWII. The Grav then fell out of favor due to factors such as its need for hand harvesting (weak stems), short shelf life (compared to modern apples), foreign imports, and the real estate pressure that made the rolling hills of Sebastopol more valuable for growing houses and wine grapes than apple trees.
Only a handful of Gravenstein growers remain. (See “Ode to a Grav Farmer”) The Apple Core’s work on creating demand and cachet for this heirloom apple allows growers to continue harvesting 100-year-old apple trees and bring their fruit to market.
“We have succeeded in educating our community about the real dangers of losing this major part of our foodshed, and demand for Gravensteins has never been higher,” says Shatkin. Because of the uptick in demand, local growers such as Lee Walker have been able to keep their apple farms. Walker nearly shut down his farm about three years ago, but was able to keep it going “particularly because Sonoma County’s signature variety, Gravenstein, has become a high-demand specialty crop,” he said.
Invest in the Fruit Future
Saving heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties is like saving artifacts or songs from the past, they need to be celebrated—and eaten—to stay alive. And you don’t need to make it to Sebastopol to taste the Gravenstein: for the 7th year in a row, The FruitGuys is partnering with Slow Food Russian River to offer The Gravenstein Apple Box to spread the apple love and aid Grav farmers. In addition to buying the farmers’ apples, The FruitGuys will donate 16% of sales back to them for each box sold. Order now, boxes ship August 6–16.
As the summer wanes and the cool fall descends, heirloom apples from all parts of the country will begin to ripen. Investigate your local heritage apples. The Slow Food Ark of Taste maintains a catalog of endangered species with superior flavor. Taste your regional apples, juices, ciders, and pies. Just by enjoying them, you can do your part to save your local apple.