Grab your gravs while you can
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.
“This drought would definitely affect fruit size,” he said.
Around Sebastopol, different farmers offered slightly different opinions on the harvest.
Farmer Stan Devoto acknowledged the tonnage was lighter this year. But of his 50 varieties, he concluded, “Generally speaking, I’m very happy with the quality and the quantity of our crop.”
Devoto did note that more gravs were dropping before he could pick them this year. Even though such apples taste fine, his family will make hard cider from any that are “cosmetically challenged.”
For the fresh market, he said, “Everybody wants a picture-perfect apple.”
Outside Graton, farmer and apple packer Lee Walker lamented that his trees held too few gravs.
It’s too bad because people really want them,” Walker said. “There’s a lot of demand for the Gravensteins.”
At Manzana Products in Graton, the county’s last apple processor, general manager Mark Fitzgerald said the grav crop looks light this year.
Even so, Manzana will have enough fruit to use its new production line that can fill 200 3.5-ounce squeeze pouches a minute with organic apple sauce.
“It’s just the next thing,” Fitzgerald said. Roughly 95 percent of the production involves organic apples.
On Thursday afternoon, Roberts’ foreman Francisco Lopez Quintana led a visitor among a 25-acre orchard off Sanders Road. Stepping through the mounds of powdery, beige dirt, he pointed out the different varieties and spoke in Spanish of the projected harvest dates.
The golden supremes should be ready to pick in about two weeks, he said. Jonathans should be ripe in three and the golden delicious by the first of September. Quintana, known as Pancho to his seven-man crew, said the apple harvest will continue through October.
On Friday afternoon in downtown Sebastopol, a long banner hung overhead near Whole Foods still proclaimed that “THE GRAVENSTEINS ARE COMING.” But Slow Foods Russian River, the group seeking to preserve the county’s apple farms, soon will replace it with a new one announcing the crop’s arrival, said spokeswoman Paula Shatkin.
Slow Foods this year will promote the gravs at local farmers markets and through a promotion with online retailer The Fruit Guys, which has promised to donate 16 percent of the proceeds from its fresh packed boxes back to the farmers.
The group also will be pressing fresh apple juice for visitors Aug. 9 and 10 at the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol. And starting today, volunteers will be providing a free grav to each visitor at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. Last year during harvest season Slow Foods gave away about 1,800 apples there, said volunteer Bob Burke.
In expressing optimism about the apple industry, Shatkin pointed to the recent efforts of local hard cider makers. Such products may lead to new orchards, which could help the farmers even if it doesn’t add more Gravenstein trees.
“We realized,” said Shatkin, “we couldn’t save the gravs without saving the farmers.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit