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Early Gravenstein harvest heralds long apple season in Sonoma County

Miguel Diaz, an employee of Lee Walker Ranch, picks Gravenstein apples at an orchard in Sebastopol, on Thursday, July 23, 2015 .(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

ROBERT DIGITALE, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A mild, dry winter has yielded a prolonged blooming season and an uneven crop, but apple farmers nonetheless are expressing more optimism these days about the outlook for their iconic piece of Sonoma County.

The apple harvest has begun, with workers on 12-foot ladders this week loading their picking bags with red-striped Gravensteins. The harvest traditionally begins with gravs, the earliest ripening and most-touted variety in the county. But this year’s season is expected to go deep into fall with such “late apple” varieties as golden delicious, Jonathans and Romes.

The farmers’ optimism, coming after decades of declines, seems largely due to a sizable jump in the price paid this year for organic, processed apples. But some boosters also point to consumers’ strong loyalty for local gravs, a popular pie and juice apple. And they note a growing interest in locally produced hard apple cider.

“Right now it’s doing much better than it has in several years,” said Randy Roberts, an organic apple farmer near Sebastopol. He credited the county’s only remaining apple processor, Manzana Products of Graton, with creating a growing market for organic apple juices, sauces and other products.

“Without Manzana being here,” Roberts said, “we probably would not be in business.

Manzanna has increased the price paid for organic apples by about 14 percent this year, said general manager Mark Fitzgerald. It is the sixth year of increased prices for a business where 95 percent of the product uses organic fruit.

“Without the growers, we’ve got nothing,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re finally at a point where they can start making some money.”

It’s upbeat talk for a west county industry that has been losing ground for more than half a century.

In the ’30s and ’40s, the county boasted 15,000 acres of apple orchards. Much of that land in recent decades has been converted to vineyards. By last year, less than 2,400 acres remained in apples.

Residents here nonetheless continued to celebrate the county’s apple heritage. A key event is the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair, which will be Aug. 8-9 at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol.

This year’s weather certainly produced some strange results for a crop that is “dry farmed,” meaning without irrigation.

The winter was simply too warm. Many farmers speak of apple trees needing a certain number of winter hours below 45 degrees — often in a range of about 800 to 1,100 hours. But it’s really more complicated, because the trees in winter also need plenty of days where the temperature doesn’t get much above about 60 degrees, said Paul Vossen, farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension.

Cloudy skies offer such conditions, Vossen said, but this winter’s spate of sunny days messed with the tree’s biological mechanisms that encourage dormancy and growth.

“That’s why we get these extended, long blooms,” he said. The blossoming normally occurs in spring, but this year it dragged into summer.

The weather contributed to varying yields among orchard and varieties, sometimes for reasons that defy explanation.

Along Gravenstein Highway North, foreman José Canela last week oversaw a picking crew in a four-acre orchard where the trees yielded a light grav crop.

“Maybe next year,” Canela said he told his boss, farmer Lee Walker, who operates the county’s last packing shed for apples bound for the fresh market.

Directly across the highway, farmer Dave Hale said his Gravenstein orchard has a decent crop, including one section on a rise where the trees looked especially full. Hale said he couldn’t explain the disparity across such a small area, especially since Walker and he use very similar farming techniques.

Despite the varied results, most predict the overall crop will be better than last year, which also was affected by drought and a mild winter.

As well, the general consensus is that the harvest has started earlier this year, as it also did in 2014.

To survive, a number of the county apple farmers have switched to organic production. Doing so has provided them a premium price for their crop, similar to the experience of county dairy farmers.

“We were fortunate enough to get certified organic over 10 years ago now, and that was a great thing to do,” said Joe Dutton of Dutton Ranch near Graton. Dutton and his brother, Steve, are fifth-generation county farmers who raise about 200 acres of apples.

Dutton Ranch also raises wine grapes, but Joe Dutton said the family intends to keep farming apples.

“We’ve grown up with it,” he said. “I don’t ever want to see it go away.”

Stan Devoto, another organic apple farmer, insists the farmers who have survived the long decline will be able to sustain their orchards and their businesses. Part of his optimism is based on a land and climate well suited for the crop.

“There’s no better place to grow apples,” Devoto said. “And there’s no better place to grow pinot noir.” He farms about 25 acres of apples and 9 acres of winegrapes, both pinot noir and chardonnay.

At Manzana, growth for most of the past decade has averaged about 12 percent a year, Fitzgerald said. An exception was in 2008 and 2009, when the world had slipped into recession and Fitzgerald “was thrilled” to have flat sales.

In 2012, the business was purchased by the Eclor beverage division of Agrial Group SA, a large French agricultural cooperative.

A little over two years ago, Manzana installed a new production line that can fill 200 3.5-ounce squeeze pouches a minute with organic apple sauce. Fitzgerald expects the line’s overall output will triple this season from a year earlier.

Most of the county’s apple crop has long gone for processed products, including sauce, juice, and vinegar. To that list in recent years has been added hard cider.

Last week, Tilted Shed Ciderworks received its first batch of Gravensteins for the season. Ellen Cavalli, who owns the Windsor cidery with husband Scott Heath, said the number of new cider business is growing by leaps and bounds.

“There are new ones coming on all the time,” she said.

Vossen, the farm advisor, sees cider as a means to boost farm income.

“I’m excited about the prices they’re talking for these cider apples,” he said.

Cider makers are willing to pay $700 to nearly $1,200 a ton for certain varieties, he said. In contrast, last year’s overall apple crop averaged $337 a ton. The price for fresh apples was far higher at about $2,000 a ton, but the fresh market constituted less than 5 percent of the total, according to the county’s crop report.

While farmers certainly replace trees on existing properties, many observers like Vossen are waiting for the day when a farmer plants a new apple orchard in the county.

The crop report noted 732 acres of Gravenstein apples in 2014, an apparent increase of 265 acres from the previous year. But a county official indicated that was due to better research efforts to capture all the existing acreage and not a sign of new plantings.

Hard cider may yet spur an actual increase in the size of the county’s apple acreage, but that hasn’t yet happened to any significant degree. Devoto has sought new land on behalf of his daughter and son-in-law, Jolie Devoto-Wade and Hunter Wade, the owners of Devoto Orchard Cider in Sebastopol and the sister brand, Golden State Cider.

However, he said, they have yet to find a landowner who is willing to provide a 30-year lease on a property. Such a lengthy period is preferred because it takes many years to bring apple trees to full production.

To help spur apple consumption, the food group Slow Food Russian River last week once more put up its signs in Sebastopol, reading: “The Gravensteins are here.”

For the second year, the group will operate a free community press that allows a family or group to press up to 100 pounds of apples in 30 minutes.

Community members pressed about 15,000 pounds of apples on weekends during the 2014 harvest at the Burbank Experiment Farm in Sebastopol, said spokeswoman Paula Shatkin. The free pressing program appears to be unique in the U.S.

The city of Sebastopol has provided about $9,000 over two years and the county another $2,500 for efforts to promote the apple industry. Slow Food has acquired a second press and soon will start taking pressing reservations at its website: slowfoodrr.org.

The group is hearing increased interest in cider and hopes to work with Cavalli to sponsor a cider workshop this season.

“Our goal is to get people to be excited about local apples,” Shatkin said.

Walker, whose still tends trees on his west county farm that his grandfather planted 100 years ago, said the promotions have helped farmers and are befitting of an apple as unique and tasty as the Gravenstein.

While the season may have just begun, Walker already has feasted on three pies made from Gravenstein apples.

“They’ve been outstanding,” he said. “Each one gets better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit