It Takes a Village: California Town Saves Heirloom Apple

The Gravenstein Apple is dear to many apple lovers for its tart taste and superior juice, sauce, and pie abilities, but it is especially dear to the residents of Sebastopol, CA (Sonoma County) where the apple is grown in the U.S.

The Gravenstein was the main apple crop for decades in this corner of Sonoma County until cheap foreign juice imports and high wine grape prices caused many growers to go out of business or replace orchards with vineyards. Seven years ago, concerned Sebasto-pudilians went to their apple farmers to ask what they could do to help save the Gravenstein. The farmers were in an economic paradox: the price for apple juice and sauce had been depressed by cheap foreign juice concentrate while demand for wine grapes was soaring.

Enter the SlowFood Foundation for Biodiversity, a 2003 offshoot of the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986. The foundation’s goal is to “guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.”  The foundation’s projects include the Ark of Taste, recognizing endangered heritage foods around the world, and Presidia, organizations designed to protect and promote particular foods. The Gravenstein Apple Presidia, run by the Slow Food Russian River chapter, is one of only six in the U.S. and the only one in the fruit category.

“This project was inspired by the vision of beautiful apple orchards being chainsawed into oblivion on our country roads here in Sebastopol, and being replaced with grapevines,” said Paula Shatkin, Gravenstein Apple Presidia Coordinator. “Suddenly, our county was in danger of ”looking like Napa and other wine counties, whereas we have a long and delicious history of being an apple growing area, and we have the perfect climate for them, and we have a long cultural history of celebrating them as a community.”

The presidia work with local farmers to find out what they need to keep their orchards in production, raises money for outreach materials, organizes events such as farmers’ markets and fairs, and does outreach to the media, tourism groups, and community organizations.

Paula said seven years of hard work by 25 dedicated volunteers is starting to pay off. A restaurant project in its third year has 93 Bay Area restaurants that have agreed to feature the apple on its menu. Media coverage has picked up and so has the apple’s profile. “We have momentum now ”¦   People contact us from all over the country, and the world, who have memories of eating Gravs and hope that they will continue to be here,” said Paula. “The farmers all tell us that the demand is up, that their customers recognize and ask for Gravenstein apples.”

Local Gravenstein farmers, including Stan Devoto, Lee Walker, and Randy Roberts of Lyngard Orchards, are part of the presidia. The FruitGuys has partnered with these farmers and Slow Food Russian River to offer the Gravenstein Apple Box, a limited edition 5-lb. box of Gravensteins along with a special local recipe for an apple tart. “We wanted to show how important and fun supporting a specific crop can be,” said Chris Mittelstaedt, FruitGuys CEO. “We get Gravensteins from our Sebastopol farmers and include them in our regular mixes but we wanted to raise this great little apple’s profile.”

Many fun events promoting the Gravenstein are held in August around Sonoma County, including the largest and tastiest pep rally: the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol, CA on August 14 & 15. Be sure to stop by the Russian River SlowFood Booth at the fair to order your very own box to celebrate this heritage apple. This town has a passion for its fruit—it even has a party for the blossom in the spring.

“People feel passionate about this apple, but we have had to work hard to educate them about the real risk of losing them,” said Paula.

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