“Farming is a complex math problem,” sighs Dave Hale as he looks sadly at piles of wood chips that had been Gravenstein apple trees in the lot next to his thriving Sebastopol, CA, orchard. He tended them for decades before their destruction. “You get to know each tree, and when something like this happens it’s like losing 500 of your friends all at once.”
“This” was the recent sale of his deceased uncle’s adjacent property—10 acres that had been part of the extended family orchard that Hale managed. With land going for $150,000 an acre, there was no way he could make the math work. Gravenstein apples—or “Gravs”—bring in about $400 per ton compared to $2,800 per ton for wine grapes. Vinters from Napa Valley bought the property and pulled out the apple trees, which they will replace with Pinot Noir grapes, a known cash crop, Hale says, that can fetch up to $6,000 a ton.
Rows of grapes already line the other two sides of Hale’s remaining 10-acre orchard, from where he can point to the former location of his grandfather’s house. His family has grown apples here for generations, but he’s likely to be the last one. Neither of his children, already well into different careers, are interested in farming, he told The FruitGuys Magazine.
Apple farmers like Hale are an endangered species in Sonoma County, just like the region’s famous Gravenstein apple. In 1937, Sonoma County had more than 7,000 acres of Gravenstein apple orchards, which supplied American troops with applesauce during World War II, but their numbers have been in decline ever since. In 2016, there were only 704 acres, according to the 2017 Sonoma County Crop Report. The “Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple” is listed in the Ark of Taste, a list of endangered heritage foods cataloged by Slow Food USA. The local Slow Food Russian River chapter is based in Sebastopol, which in 2003 launched the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium to save it from commercial extinction. They do this through events, marketing, and partnering with distributors like The FruitGuys, which, in addition to buying apples, offers an annual Gravenstein Apple Box each August that gives 16% of the proceeds back to farmers such as Dave Hale, Stan Devoto, Lee Walker, and John Kolling.
The Gravenstein’s sweet-tart taste is legendary and highly sought after by bakers and chefs. The apples come in three varieties: green, red, and Rosebrook. Green Gravensteins are green tend to have a tarter flavor and are prized for pies and tarts; red Gravs are red and sweeter; and Rosebrooks are striped. They all have a slightly tacky surface and a singular mix of tart-sweet taste when eaten with the peel.
These apples thrive in Western Sonoma County’s sandy loam soil, hot days, and cool nights. Yet they’re a tricky fruit to grow and sell. They have short stems, which make them prone to falling off the tree and requiring hand harvesting; a short season (they’re generally available only for a few weeks in early August); and they don’t store well (they bruise easily) so few supermarkets want to carry them. Many Gravenstein farmers sell the bulk of their crop to the local apple processor for sauce, juice or cider, and vinegar.
Many factors are driving Sebastopol apple farmers to get out of the business: Rising land values and labor costs; more profitable wine grapes (and now marijuana crops) replacing orchards; cheaper imported apples; increasingly onerous regulations for farms; and dependence on a single apple processor in the county. The remaining farmers have had to adapt to survive: cutting back on active production and/or diversifying their crops by planting grapes, which cost less to grow and harvest and yield more in profit; or selling cut flowers and other crops; and shifting their sales channels from wholesale to direct-to-consumer. Hale himself runs a well-known farm stand with pumpkins, gourds, and flowers in the fall.
“No one is making a living from just apples anymore,” says Stan Devoto of Devoto Gardens & Orchards, an organic-certified apple grower who grafted 300 new apple trees and upgraded his irrigation system with the proceeds he received from The FruitGuys Gravenstein Apple Box. Devoto’s family orchard has diversified into cut flowers and wine grapes, and his orchardist daughter Jolie Devoto has a thriving hard cider business, Golden State Cider, some made with their specialty apples, including Gravensteins. “I hope she’ll take over the business and I can work for her some day,” he says.
In the late 1980s, Sebastopol’s Appleseed Farm was one of the largest organic apple growers in the US with 800 acres of active apple production, according to owner farmer John Kolling, and the first to successfully market organic applesauce commercially. He supplied apples for organic juice, applesauce, cider vinegar, and dried apples for brands such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, R.W. Knudson, and others. Today, Kolling is actively farming only 125 acres, about half of which are Gravenstein trees, some more than a century old. The trees are massive, with trunks seven feet in circumference and canopies extending some 20 feet wide; branches are laden with ripening apples and propped up with timber. His Solana Gold brand produces organic apple juice, applesauce, and apple cider vinegar for sale in high-end grocery stores, as well as private label products.
“You have to be a farmer, but you also need to be an electrician, a roofer, an irrigation engineer, and a mechanic,” Kolling says, grinning and pointing to his two trucks in need of maintenance, now that his mechanic has been hired away. The Sonoma County wildfires in 2018 and 2017 didn’t burn too close to Sebastopol, but the rebuilding effort has made finding tradespeople more difficult and expensive than ever. “Before you know it,” he says, “you’re doing everything.”
Kolling says his business started to level off in the 1990s due to “the unrelenting hard work, business chaos, and a nasty divorce.” The sale of Manzana, the town’s family-owned apple processor, to a French conglomerate in 2012 hasn’t helped business either. The new owners “have made some mistakes” and restricted growers’ options for private label processing—a main source of income, he says.
“You have to really love and be committed to preserving these heirloom varieties because financially there’s really not a lot in it for the farmer,” says Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, who supports independent farms across the U.S. with their purchases of fruit for offices. “When you only have a few growers left, you really don’t realize how thin the thread is: all it would take is a couple bad years of weather, the farmers’ personal health, or the financial realities of running a small farm, and it could be over in an instant—you’d never taste them again.”
Saving an heirloom apple variety is a lot like saving an artifact or preserving music from the past—it needs to be celebrated (and eaten, in the case of apples) to keep it alive.
The FruitGuys Gravenstein Apple Box is only here as long as Grav season.
Pia Hinckle is publisher of The FruitGuys Magazine. As a kid, she spent her summers eating Gravensteins at her grandparents’ ranch in Sonoma County.