Saving the Gravenstein- Drought, Economics, Preservation

By Debra Morris, PCFMA | September 01, 2014
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The Gravenstein is one of my favorite apples. Its crisp tart flavor is a late summer delight. But with the continued California drought and the profitability of vineyards, apple orchards in Sonoma County are becoming scarcer.

I did a little research on the Gravenstein and found that Russian fur traders brought them to the Sonoma area in the mid-1800s. Over 18,000 acres were eventually planted in the lush rolling hills in the following 100 years. Almost every orchard supplied local families with enough apples for juicing, drying, and eating through the winter months. In the 1970s and through the 1990s, increasing competition from the Washington apple industry, the loss of a significant market with the end of the Vietnam War (the army used Gravensteins to supply troops with applesauce), and the introduction of several generic, easy-to-store and ship apple varieties, caused the Gravenstein apple growers to receive only pennies per pound for their apples. After years of losing money, many growers sold their land or transformed their acreage into more lucrative vineyards.

During a recent vacation to Bodega Bay and Sonoma’s West County we drove along winding back roads lined with wild blackberry bushes. Ranches were filled with wandering beef cattle and dairy cows, vineyards showed off rows of recently planted grape vines in orderly procession, and apple orchards still covered the gentle hills, trees heavy with apples. Driving up a narrow, orchard-lined dirt road, we stopped at Walker Ranch in Graton where Lee and Barbara Walker grow Gravenstein apples on 50 acres.

They are one of the few remaining Gravenstein orchards in the area and their family has been growing apples for over 100 years. They also grow about 25 other apple varieties that are harvested through November, concentrating on the older heirloom varieties like the Bellflower, the Baldwin, and the Arkansas Black. Lee’s grandfather planted some of the original trees in 1910 and they’re still producing apples! As we pull into the Walker farm, gnarled old apple trees stand like proud sentinels on the terraced hills surrounding the processing shed. Backlit by the afternoon sun, they take on an almost eerie sculptural look. An old tractor sits at the base of the hill, now charged with watching the harvest come in and providing entertainment for climbing children. Huge old wooden crates hold the latest apple harvest as workers move in and out of the packing shed, loading and unloading the latest crop. Inside the shed on the wall behind the counter are blue ribbons and trophies for apple excellence.

We’re greeted like old friends by Barbara Walker, owner of Walker Ranch as we order a huge box of apples. I chatted with Barbara about how the orchard was doing in this prolonged drought. She said, “We’ve picked 70% of what we did last year because of lack of water. And if we don’t get rain this coming season, who knows what we’ll get next year.” She also said that with so few acres remaining of this precious heirloom apple, farmers are afraid they might lose some of their trees if they don’t get substantial rain this winter.

There is a long history of Gravensteins in the West County area, and though many farmers have removed these wonderful old trees to put in more profitable wine grapes, there are those stalwart farmers like the Walkers who refuse to let the Gravenstein apple disappear into the history books. Barbara says, “We love these apples and farming – and we love to see the same customers return every year. It’s like family.” There are now fewer than 800 acres of Gravenstein orchards in the county. As we drive back to Bodega with our big box of gorgeous Gravensteins it is sad to see abandoned orchards. And the acreage that I remember as having apple orchards is now covered in grape vines.

But all is not lost – yet. There are efforts underway to preserve what little acreage is left and efforts to plant new acreage. The Gravenstein Apple Fair in early August reminds visitors and locals alike that this heirloom apple deserves to be preserved. And the Slow Food USA Gravenstein Apple Presidia is working with various organizations and farmers to revive interest in the apple. We hope to continue to visit the Walkers and other Gravenstein apple farms in West County in the years to come. Let’s hope next year when we drive down the Gravenstein Highway there will still be many rows of these wonderful old apple trees.

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