Sonoma County's Signature Apple Making Slow Comeback

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The Press Democrat (California)

Sonoma County's Signature Apple Making Slow Comeback

Robert Digitale

Don Roberts checks this year's Gravenstein apple blossoms Tuesday April 7, 2009. The Gravenstein apple is still around, but are slowly disappearing from Sonoma County's landscape. The orchard has been in the Roberts family for four generations. (KENT PORTER / PD)

SONOMA, Calif. - The gnarled icons of apple country still blossom after more than a half century rooted in the gentle hillsides, but most of Sonoma County's Gravensteins were pulled out years ago for other varieties and, more recently, for vineyards.

Nonetheless, fourth-generation farmer Randy Roberts continues to replant Sonoma County's signature apple tree with an eye to the future.

"Better days are what I'm hoping for," said Roberts, 51, a soft-spoken man who last year planted 100 young Gravensteins and plans to put in 200 more next year outside Sebastopol.

The county's Gravenstein crop "can't go down any further without disappearing," he said.

The blossoms have returned this spring to the west county with Gravensteins, as usual, the first apple trees to spread forth their blooms of five white petals. The blossoms remain a reminder of the many decades when people around the nation ate the county's Gravensteins, then the earliest U.S. apple crop.

Along with the few remaining apple farmers, enthusiasts of local food want to make sure the Gravensteins remain available for future generations.

"There's so much cultural significance to these apples," said Paula Shatkin, a leader in the group Slow Food Russian River. "It's part of our history. It's part of who we are."

The effort to help farmers and promote local apples has the blessing of the international Slow Food organization. It has designated the Gravensteins as one of six restoration projects, or "presidia," in the U.S., and the only one in California.

If Petaluma once was the egg basket of the world, Sebastopol could claim itself as home to the Gravenstein, a streaked red-and-green apple whose subtly tart flavor gets rave reviews in pies, juices and apple sauces.

The Roberts family began growing apples around the turn of the 20th century. Their ranch land along Gold Ridge Road still has a few Gravensteins that exceed 100 years old. Most of the others are more than 50 years old.

When those trees were young, the hills around Sebastopol, Graton and Forestville were blanketed white each spring when the apple trees blossomed.

"It was like it snowed, it was so beautiful," said Gloria Roberts. She insists the Gravensteins have the best blossom among apple varieties. "They're fuller. They're more brilliant."

The county's apple production grew throughout the early 20th century and reached its height in the 1940s. At that time the county had more than 800,000 mature apple trees, and upwards of 15,000 acres in production. Most of those trees were Gravensteins.

"The war is when they made money," Don Roberts, 72, said of the apple farmers. Regulations kept farm labor costs low, and "the government bought a lot of fruit" for apple sauce and dried fruit to feed its G.I.s.

In 1950 the federal government reported nearly 2,700 apple farms in the county, with almost 670,000 trees spread over 11,000 acres. Roberts said Sebastopol alone had five apple packers, and the surrounding farmland contained 101 apple dryers.

The area bustled at harvest, and even youngsters from town went out to the orchards to make money picking apples.

"You'd be hard pressed to go on a road and not see an apple truck," recalled Bob Burdo, 59, a third-generation apple farmer outside Sebastopol.

Today the county has only 2,900 acres of apples, and farmers estimate that up to 1,000 of them contain Gravensteins. More than a quarter century ago farmers pulled out many Gravensteins because a local processor preferred golden delicious and other varieties for drying.

The Gravenstein doesn't store well and with the advent of controlled atmosphere, cold storage systems, the nation long ago became accustomed to other varieties sold fresh year-round.

Slow Foods Russian River estimates there are 10 or fewer farmers trying to make a living by selling Gravensteins in the county. The group hopes to help the farmers sell more of their crop on the fresh, organic market, where prices are higher than for processed apples.

One advantage the farmers cite is that the Sebastopol area still celebrates its apple heritage twice a year, in spring with the Apple Blossom Festival and in August with the Gravenstein Apple Fair. This year's two-day Apple Blossom Festival will be April 25 and 26, with the parade the first day.

Even when it rains, the town's residents turn out in large numbers to watch the parade, said Teresa Ramondo, executive director of the Sebastopol Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's just a wonderful small town thing," she said.


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