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Gravenstein apple harvest a taste of today, a nod to the past

Apple season kicks off next Sunday with a celebration at the Sebastopol Farmers Market, where Slow Food Russian River will have a community apple pres

Apple season in Sonoma County

The Chevy flatbed farm truck has been hauling apples and other crops for 43 years. The small yellow tractor has been chugging through the orchards for over 50. And some of the nearby Gravenstein apple trees have been blossoming for nearly a century.

The farmer, Paul Kolling, is 63.

“We keep the old stuff going somehow,” said Kolling, standing in a sparse orchard in Sebastopol where a crew of workers Thursday shook trees and collected apples for cider vinegar.

Kolling, a former engineer who switched to apple farming four decades ago, was thinking about the half-century- old Massey Fergusson tractor, whose front and back ends each carried a wooden apple bin. The tractor wouldn't start until the farmer adjusted a loose battery cable.

However, “the old stuff” just as easily could have referred to the orchard's aged trees, a few of which keep producing apples though their insides are nearly hollowed out or the holes in their trunks are big enough to put a hand through.

It's harvest time once more in Apple Country. Each new crop provides a taste of today and an echo back to what once was.

For decades, the orchards around Sebastopol have been part of Sonoma County's farm heritage, gleaming white with spring blossoms and bursting forth in summer with red-and-green-streaked gravs that are prized in pies and juices.

But making a living off the iconic trees has long been a struggle. For some growers, that effort has been exacerbated this season by a shortage of available farmworkers.

Both the remaining apple farmers and the one processor that still serves them represent a shadow of an industry that once dominated agriculture in the west county.

“We're just losing our orchards,” said Alissa Trinei, the marketing administrator for Graton's Manzana Products, the sole remaining apple processor in the county.

For consumers, the good news is that farmers predict a decent crop of gravs this year, the first of which should become available by the unofficial kickoff of apple season next Sunday at the Sebastopol Farmers Market, where Slow Food Russian River will have a community apple press and fresh juice.

Friday will mark the opening of Sonoma County Cider Week, an inaugural series of events with 10 craft cideries taking part. The celebrations will continue Aug. 11 and 12 with the 45th Gravenstein Apple Fair at Sebastopol's Ragle Ranch Park.

The emergence of hard cider makers here in the past decade has given hope to many who want to see apple trees remain in the west county. They suggest the beverage can command prices from consumers that could sustain farmers and their orchards.

In the 1940s, nearly 15,000 acres in the county were planted with apples. Among the different varieties, the Gravenstein stood out because it is among the earliest to ripen, a marketing edge in an era before apples were kept year round in cold storage.

But the county's orchards have long been “dry farmed,” or without irrigation. Other regions, including parts of Washington and California, have proven far more productive, both with irrigation and with newer, high-density growing methods.

Despite the longstanding competition, the county's apple farmers in 1980 still tended 7,800 acres of orchards and produced a total crop worth nearly $10 million. Joe Dutton, an apple and grape grower outside Graton, recalled four major apple processors then still bought local apples: Manzana, S. Martinelli & Co. of Watsonville, and two Sebastopol companies, Vacu Dry and the Barlow cannery.

Today only Manzana remains in the county, though Martinelli still buys a limited amount of local apples, growers said. Meanwhile, the Barlow has been transformed into a retail complex featuring artisan food and beverage makers.

As the apple industry declined, many growers turned instead to planting wine grapes, the county's premier crop.

As of 2016, the most recent data available, the county's apple orchards had declined to 2,200 acres, including about 700 planted in Gravensteins. The crop that year for all apple varieties totaled $5.5 million.

Last year, the Gravenstein harvest was mixed. Growers said some orchards produced plenty of fruit and others suffered with lackluster results.

This year, apple enthusiasts speak of more fruit but fewer farmworkers.

“I've heard people say they have a good crop,” said Paula Shatkin, coordinator for the Save the Gravenstein Apple project of Slow Food Russian River, which advocates for healthy farms and local foods. “I've also heard people say they have trouble getting anybody to pick it.”

Grower Stan Devoto of Sebastopol said his apple crop looks decent but “I don't have enough help” to harvest it.

Apple season kicks off next Sunday with a celebration at the Sebastopol Farmers Market, where Slow Food Russian River will have a community apple pres

Apple season in Sonoma County

Lee Walker, whose family operates the last fresh apple packing shed near Graton, said his farm has had difficulty finding workers for the last few years.

“There's no help around,” said Walker, 87, whose orchards include 60 Gravenstein trees planted by his grandfather in 1910.

In recent years, farmers around California have complained of a labor shortage, partly ascribed to the drop in workers crossing the border from Mexico. This year, growers in Sonoma County point to two other possible factors.

First, apple farmers are competing against a new cannabis industry that gained legal status in California this year. Second, former farmworkers appear to be taking entry-level construction jobs for the massive residential rebuild that began after nearly 5,300 homes burned in the county last fall.

Other growers suggested their harvests won't be significantly affected by the tight labor market.

Joe Dutton, who farms Dutton Ranch near Graton with his brother, Steve Dutton, said he would welcome more labor. But his operation has benefited the past decade by bringing guest workers from Mexico under a special visa program. This year, the ranch's 85 guest workers will harvest 200 acres of organic apples and 1,200 acres of vineyards.

Kolling said the worker shortage seems the same as in recent years. He relies on a longtime crew to harvest the 88 small orchards he tends of certified organic apples. Different landowners lease him the properties, which total 220 acres.

Many of those orchards sit among the mix of ranchettes and other developments that have sprouted in recent decades around Sebastopol. That includes the site that Kolling's crew harvested last week behind the O'Reilly Media complex on Gravenstein Highway North.

“We're farming in suburbia,” he quipped.

The apple industry's outlook remains mixed, though some argue more upbeat signs exist today than in decades past.

Dutton noted that Manzana focuses on organic production, a move that has allowed it to grow its North Coast organic brand, most recently offering for the health conscious a “drinking vinegar” and applesauce with probiotics.

Manzana not only raised what it pays for apples this year over 2017 but already has told growers the increase it will pay in 2019 - an advance notice that Dutton couldn't recall ever receiving in decades of farming apples.

“The next couple of years are still looking pretty good,” he said.

Another bright spot is the use of local apples for hard cider.

Paul Vossen, a retired farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension, said he had mixed success in the 1980s trying to help apple farmers with a strategy of selling fresh fruit. He thinks hard cider offers far more promise, and he is consulting with two clients who want to plant orchards with apple varieties prized for cider.

“I wish what is happening with hard cider had happened 30 years ago,'' Vossen said.

This year, Devoto will make his first major harvest of 500 trees that he planted specifically for making cider, including varieties like Kingston black. He also is slowly converting to apples about 10 acres of farmland that he long has used for growing cut flowers.

His daughter, Jolie Devoto- Wade, is a cider maker, and Devoto said he wants to shape a farm where she one day can “grow her own apples and then put it in a bottle.” He sees no other way forward for the apple industry.

“If it's business as usual,” he said, “you're going to find there are very few orchards left in the county.”

Looking both back and forward, Kolling noted that he once delivered apples to the Barlow. Now his wife, Kendra Kolling, has signed a lease to open an eatery there called The Farmer's Wife.

Her pop-up food stall of the same name was credited last September by a San Francisco Chronicle food writer with making “one of the Bay Area's best sandwiches.”

A month later, in October, Kolling's home burned to the ground amid the region's historic wildfires. The nearly century- old farmhouse in Kenwood had been in his family since 1930.

On Thursday, Kolling got up at 4 a.m. to dig trenches on his rebuild before arriving at the orchard shortly after 8 a.m. He credited his decades as an apple farmer for helping prepare him for the past year.

“You've got to be strong to survive the apple business,” he said. “It's helped me survive this disaster.”

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

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