Sonoma County apple growers find their crop holds up well despite drought
As he walks the rows of his apple orchard in the hills west of Sebastopol, Stan Devoto can’t help picking fruit off the branch. The thinning will allow the remaining fruit to better thrive in a year that has now been classified locally as exceptional drought.
The apples need to be spaced between 4 to 8 inches on the branch so they can grow into flavorful varieties such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and more bitter ones that are used in hard cider. More than 100 different types of apples are harvested within Devoto’s 25-acre orchard. Because of the drought, the apples will be smaller when harvest kicks off in late July, which means the overall tonnage for the crop will be down in the county this year.
“We are thinning further apart this year and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Devoto, who has been farming on the land since 1976. That was right before the last time when there was such an extreme drought in the area.
“We got through it (the 1970s drought). But it is so dry here that weeds won’t even grow. It’s really crazy,” Devoto said.
Even with the difficult circumstances, apples are one of the best drought-resistant crops within the county along with olive trees whose fruit is used for making olive oil, said Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith.
“The standard apple trees have a much larger root system, and they go much larger into the soil profile. They are able to find that available soil moisture to use for growth,” Smith said.
The crop has some advantages over others with climate change. Most apple orchards in the county are dry farmed, meaning that they rely only on winter rainwater to get them through until harvest. That contrasts with grape vineyards across the county that much more rely on drip irrigation, though vintners note that they are very selective on their application of water as stressed grapes result in more flavorful wine. Apples also aren’t susceptible to smoke taint, which devastated the wine grape crop last year, resulting in about a 50% loss in value of around $300 million.
“Drought has a way of pushing people toward more water resilience and more cropping systems that are resilient to drought. Perhaps this drought signals a reembracing the production of standard apples as an orchard system … because of its ecology,” Smith said.
That would be welcome news for the Sonoma County sector, which has continued to persist even though it is far past its glory days of being a king crop. The apple industry — mostly in the west county — was born in the late 1800s when botanist Luther Burbank persuaded a Sebastopol rancher to plant Gravenstein apples. The tart, crisp fruit soon became a signature product beloved by locals. The popularity also led to the Gravenstein Apple Fair, which is held every summer at Ragle Ranch Regional Park. After the fair was canceled last year because of COVID-19, the event will come back Aug. 14 as a small-scale benefit concert to raise funds for the full event next year.
The sector grew through the years and reached its height in 1940 with almost 14,000 acres of apple orchards that had been planted in the county. That activity in turn created related jobs at processing facilities such as Barlow Co., which was an applesauce canning facility in downtown Sebastopol. That plant years later shut down and has been turned into The Barlow retail center that opened in 2013. With the drop in production, there remains only one processing facility in the area now at Manzana Products Co. in Graton, which has been in business since 1922 and makes juice, vinegar and applesauce at its aging facility.
The apple industry in the western United States eventually migrated to Washington State and parts of Oregon where those crops are produced more like factory farming with bunched rows and irrigation. “In Sonoma County, we don’t have enough irrigated water to make the crop competitive with other areas,” said Paul Vossen, an agricultural consultant who previously worked for the UC Cooperative Extension.
Agriculture, if anything, is known for constant change. The county once was a bastion of hops, pears and oranges that over time were slowly replaced with the most recent profitable crop: wine grapes. For comparison’s sake, in 2019 wine grapes were valued at $654 million while the next closest agriculture industry was milk production at $127 million. Apples brought in about $4 million with the Gravenstein value at $1.3 million.
The disparity can be seen firsthand on the land — such as a drive west along Highway 116 out of Sebastopol — as orchards over the years were replaced with vineyards. The county had almost 63,000 acres of vineyards in 2019 and about 2,100 acres of apple orchards.
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