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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.

Smith noted that the apple orchard acreage has held steady for the past decade even though conversions from orchard to vineyards still continue. That includes a recent incident where a small winery cut down 6 acres of old organic apple trees in west county to plant grapes.

Farmers have had to search for more sustainable ways to sell their fruit, especially as sending them to Manzana garners the lowest profits. They prefer to sell them to wholesalers or directly at their farms or farmers’ market as that can attract the highest value.

Such is the case for Dave Hale who farms apples on 10 acres outside of Sebastopol. He once farmed 90 acres. “The apple industry and the markets we market to were not profitable,” Hale said of his cutback in production. He also complained about burdensome government regulations.

“Agriculture is dollar driven,” he said. The majority of his revenue is selling directly to the public either at farmers markets or his farm. For this year, the crop is a mixed bag, Hale said, as it varies between the 40 different varieties he grows with some “nonexistent” on the trees.

“The varieties I do have, the quality looks really good at this time,” Hale said. “We don’t need excessive heat right now. We don’t need triple digit heat.”

But local farmers such as Hale and Devoto also have found another viable source of revenue as they sell a portion of their crop to cidermakers. Sonoma County has about a dozen cideries that produce an alcohol beverage that is drier and crisper than the traditional mass market brands such as Angry Orchard, which is sweeter and tastes like a Jolly Rancher candy. Devoto said growers can get from $800 to $1,000 a ton for certain hard cider apples, which is double the amount that they would likely receive from processing.

Hard ciders had been traditionally sold in 750 ml bottles like wine, but there has been a fast-growing trend in canning that was first led by Golden State Cider, which was founded by Devoto’s daughter, Jolie Devoto. Some local cideries such as Tilted Shed and Ethic Cider also have their own small orchards to source their own fruit.

“There are a number of cidermakers who by our niche varieties for hard cider,” Hale said of the growth in the sector.

Devoto’s apples are used at Horse and Plow, a Sebastopol-based winery that also makes cider. While the business has increasingly made a name for itself with its wine, Horse and Plow’s cider program has become popular, especially with customers who try the product on-site. “We make more wine than cider and we have been making wine longer than cider. But in our tasting room our sales are about evenly split,” said Suzanne Hagins, co-founder of the winery.

Hagins is a proponent of hard ciders even though there is ceiling for how much you can charge as opposed to wine. A bottle of hard cider can cost $14. while rose wine costs $20 a bottle and other varietals can range from $25 to $50. “For the locals in Sebastopol, it’s very important to them. We value that so much. We feel the same way, we don’t want to see the orchards cut down. We don’t want a monoculture even though we love our wine,” she said.

The drought also may bring more opportunity for the crop via hard cider. There is growing recognition that the role that apple trees play in the environment and that could be a great selling point going forward in promoting hard cider, said Ned Lawton. He founded Ethic Ciders in 2015 and has a small orchard of almost 5 acres along Occidental Road where he hopes to finish a tasting room to open this fall. That space will serve as a spot to better educate his customers about the benefits of maintaining apple orchards and find ways to make apple farming more economically sustainable. He has already calculated the carbon footprint of the planned visitors space and the steps he will take to mitigate such impact through reducing tillage and more mulching.

“We want to showcase that whole story of not only apples, but how it is sustainable in carbon farming,” Lawton said. “We hope we can utilize that in way to being an educational platform.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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