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The Gravenstein apple crop is a mixed bag this season for Sonoma County farmers.

As they gear up for the typically short harvest, some apple farmers said they expect a good crop of the red-and-green streaked fruit, an iconic but fairly delicate local variety and the earliest to be picked in the orchards around Sebastopol.

But others report their gravs suffered from long spring rains during bloom or from prolonged heat this summer.

Joe Dutton, an apple and grape grower outside Graton, said that this season, one block of trees in an orchard shows plenty of fruit, while another nearby block didn’t fare as well.

“The microclimates are for sure showing what they can do,” said Dutton, who farms grapes and apples at Dutton Ranch with his brother, Steve Dutton. Joe Dutton called the farm’s Gravenstein crop “spotty” and advised consumers to get fresh gravs soon because “they will not last long.”

The west county is gearing up for apple season, where for decades the Gravenstein has been a staple in juices and pies.

Apples remain one of the county’s million-dollar crops, though the value lags far behind such areas as livestock, nursery products, eggs, dairy and wine. Last year, the Gravenstein crop amounted to nearly $1.6 million, while the value of late variety apples, such as Jonathans and Golden Delicious, totaled almost $3.9 million.

Mark Fitzgerald, general manager of apple processor Manzana Products in Graton, said the season seems average, with some farmers reporting a bigger crop than last year and others reporting their tonnage will be down. He did note that a large number of apples are dropping early to the ground this summer.

“They seem like they are falling a lot faster,” said Fitzgerald, whose company specializes in organic apples and offers its own North Coast brand of organic sauces, juices and vinegars.

Apple farmer Lee Walker also has noticed more falling fruit this year. He and other farmers speculate the numerous hot days this summer may be partly to blame.

“Normally we get maybe one” hot spell per summer that hovers around 100 degrees, he said. However, this year there have been several heat waves.

The Walker family, named the farm bureau’s 2017 Farm Family of the Year, operates the last apple packing shed in the county. Some of the farm’s trees are a century old and were producing fruit during local apple country’s heyday.

In the 1940s, nearly 15,000 acres in the county were planted with apples. Last year, that number had declined to 2,200 acres, including about 700 planted in Gravensteins.

Apple and grape farmer Perry Kozlowski said his grav crop will be significantly smaller this season.

“The heat wave did a good number on us,” said Kozlowski, part of the family that owns Kozlowski Farms outside Forestville. “This is not a very good apple year.”

Workers will pick, process and freeze the apples so Kozlowski Farms can use the fruit year-round in its popular pies.

Sebastopol farmer Randy Roberts said he has an abundance of apples but faces a challenge in finding enough pickers to harvest them.

The available workers this season mostly have taken jobs in the vineyards, where farmers enjoy higher profit margins and can afford to offer bigger pay.

“Our grav crop is really good,” Roberts said. “There’s just a real shortage of help.”

The Sebastopol Farmers Market will kick off apple season Sunday with Slow Food Russian River pouring fresh-pressed juice. Slow Food, which for years has worked to preserve west county orchards, on Saturday will open its apple press for public use at the Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment Farm in Sebastopol. (Apple press reservations can be made online at slowfoodrr.org.)

Also, the Gravenstein Apple Fair will return Aug. 12-13 to Sebastopol’s Ragle Ranch Park.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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