Stan Devoto wants to try something new in Apple Country: Plant an orchard, not with the tasty Gravenstein but with such bitter, hard cider varieties as Kingston black, Dabinett and Herefordshire redstreak.
In a west Sonoma County industry that has seen little but decline for half a century, Devoto is trying to build a new kind of apple business. He wants to grow fruit that doesn't end up in juice or apple sauce but in an alcoholic beverage whose sales are growing faster than craft beer.
"I think there's a future in that," said Devoto, a longtime Sebastopol farmer and grape grower whose daughter and son-in-law have started a hard cider business. He even offered a startling prediction: If he can plant a new orchard, he can make almost as much money growing cider apples as growing winegrapes.
A few Sonoma County apple growers also have started producing hard cider, a fermented drink with an alcohol content similar to beer but more popular with women. While the efforts remain fledgling, they suggest a new avenue to keep alive an iconic west county crop for another generation.
"I don't know the last time when we had a new commercial apple orchard put in," said Tony Linegar, the county's agricultural commissioner. It may have happened over 20 years ago, he said, but in his office "it's farther back than anyone here can remember."
Those in the hard cider industry say the beverage could give local apple farmers a needed shot in the arm.
"I would think the pendulum has swung so far for apples, it's almost time to swing back the other way," said Jeffrey House, president and owner of Ace Cider in Sebastopol.
The 20-year-old Ace is one of the largest independently owned cideries in the country. Its annual production amounts to 500,000 cases, with sales approaching $10 million and a growth rate of 40 percent a year.
The growth helps explain why large brewers like Anheuser-Busch inBev, Heineken and MillerCoors are getting into the hard cider business. Anheuser-Busch on Monday is slated to place in stores nationwide its new Johnny Appleseed Hard Apple Cider.
"We may also get involved in orchards ourselves," House said of Ace's plans. Hard cider production eventually could lead to planting more apple trees in west county. Even a few wineries that already ferment the apple juice for some local farmers might one day make their own ciders, he said.
For most of the past century, the hills around Sebastopol have gleamed white each spring with apple blossoms. West county residents once more will celebrate their heritage crop next weekend with the annual Apple Blossom Festival.
"There's nothing more beautiful than an apple orchard blooming," said Torrey Olson, who raises apples and Asian pears at Gabriel Farm near Graton.
However, aesthetic appeal and a storied history haven't halted the industry's long retreat.
Farmers here raise Gravensteins and other varieties pretty much the way their grandfathers did. Meanwhile, the world's fresh apples today are grown mostly in irrigated, high-density orchards. And U.S. consumers can buy gallons of cheap juice made from frozen concentrate imported from China.
In the '30s and '40s, Sonoma County had 15,000 acres of apple orchards, virtually all grown without irrigation. Today, much of that land has been converted to vineyards, and fewer than 2,200 acres remain in apple production. Gravenstein orchards in production today amount to less than 500 acres.
Farmers in 2012 produced an apple crop worth $5.4 million, a smidgen compared with the $583million paid to winegrape growers.
"The apple industry was so bad for so long that most of the farmers ended up selling their land," recalled apple farmer Perry Kozlowski, part of the family that owns Kozlowski Farms outside Forestville. One of the low points came in 1983 when the Sebastopol Apple Cooperative Cannery went broke, leaving growers unpaid and unable to pay off their loans.
But a small group of "holdouts" hung on, said Kozlowski, whose father and grandfather planted apples. His son, Tyler, wants to become the family's fourth generation of apple farmers.
The remaining growers eventually found ways to get a little more money for their apples. A decade of promotions by local food advocate Slow Food is widely acknowledged for helping boost the price paid for fresh Gravensteins.
"I can't say enough good things about Slow Food," said Lee Walker, an apple farmer who operates one of the county's last packing sheds. "They've made a turnaround in the Gravensteins," so much so that he has a hard time keeping up with demand from Bay Area markets.
Most of the remaining apple farmers have switched to organic production, just as local dairy farmers have gone organic in order to distinguish their milk from a commodity product.