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Grab your gravs while you can

  • Juan Rodriquez stretches for Gravenstein apples in an orchard off Sanders Road south of Sebastopol.

Gravenstein lovers shouldn’t tarry this season because those who watch the iconic red-and-green apple say the crop is smaller, sweeter and in demand.

The harvest has been underway for about a week, and Sebastopol farmer Randy Roberts thinks it will be over in another three. Roberts and others say drought, too many warm winter days and a lackluster bloom have combined to make this year’s crop lighter, higher in sugar and smaller in size.

“We’re hoping for half of what we had last year,” Roberts said. Even so, he acknowledged that some orchards fared better than others, and he predicted that consumers still will find gravs for sale at farmer’s markets and local grocery stores.

“There’s going to be some around,” he said. “It’s just not going to be a very long season.”

The early-harvest Gravenstein has come to symbolize Sonoma County’s 130-year-old apple industry. No less an authority than plant wizard Luther Burbank deemed it “the best quality of all known apples,” adding that the county “seems to be its home.”

But Apple Country has been losing ground here for more than half a century. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the county boasted 15,000 acres of apple orchards, with most of the crop dried or processed for apple sauce, juice, cider or vinegar.

By last year, less than 2,200 acres remained in apples. Many of the old orchards have been converted to vineyards, these days the county’s premier crop.

Of the orchards that remain, most today feature late variety apples such as golden delicious, Romes and Jonathans. Less than 500 acres contain gravs.

Paul Vossen, an orchard expert for the county’s UC Cooperative Extension, said the relatively warm days of last winter prevented the trees here from getting the normal chilling effect that brings on a proper dormancy and sets up a good bloom. The strange weather seemed to have a greater effect on the Rome variety, he said, and farmers agreed that crop looks light.

Vossen also noted that most apple farmers here rely on rainfall to water their trees, and the lack of it is showing up now in the form of smaller apples.

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