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