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Remember when Gravenstein apples (before winegrapes strong-armed them into oblivion) were all the rage for Sonoma County agriculture? NorthBay biz looks to the purveyors of this forgotten crop to find out: Where did all the Gravs go?

The Gravenstein Highway unwinds out of Cotati, a thin gray ribbon with antique shops and boarded-up roadhouses hanging off it like loose threads. While there are pastures aplenty inhabited by horses and cattle, it isn’t until you hit Sebastopol, “earth in upheaval,” that you begin to understand how Highway 116 acquired its moniker. As the road climbs northwest, racing for the coast’s saltwater spray, apple trees rise up on both sides of the highway, their gnarled trunks and branches dwarfing the fruit littering the ground.

There’s something unsettling in the orchards: Something beyond the haphazard rows of trees or the overgrowth that clambers at their roots. Maybe it’s the random conditions found in the ranks of the apple trees as compared to the almost mathematical precision and pristine conditions of the grapevines on neighboring acres. Perhaps it’s the air, rich with sun-baked dirt. Conceivably, it isn’t the smell of overheated earth at all, but rather the bouquet of hope leaching out of the soil.

A well-meaning campaign has been waged in recent months to trumpet the majesty of the Gravenstein—or “Gravs” as they’re known to farmers who tend to them for a living. The effort to rally interest in the Grav is led by the Russian River Chapter of Slow Food USA, a group of food aficionados that believes locally grown fare should find a higher place on our food agendas and a larger place on our plates.

The Grav is indeed a gift to those who find joy in filling a crust with fresh slices and cinnamon or favor the tart bite of the crisp green- and red-striped fruit. But Sebastopol is one of just three places where the Gravenstein thrives; the other locales are Germany and Nova Scotia. And fear runs thick among locals that the Gravenstein apple, at one time the agricultural king of Sonoma County, may go the way of the baseball doubleheader or the newspaper.

In 1958, there were 40 apple processors in Sonoma County. Today, there’s only one, Manzana Products in Sebastopol. In 1958, Sonoma County counted 5,449 acres in Gravenstein production. Last year, the Sonoma County Ag Department reported just 875 acres were planted with Gravensteins. On the other hand, more than 55,000 acres are in winegrape production. In terms of revenue, the Gravenstein ranked ahead of sheep and lamb production but behind cut flowers.

Cut flowers?

Follow the money

Not surprisingly, grape production revenue led the way with just over $381 million, while Gravenstein revenues totaled just $2 million and change. Bear in mind the $381 million is for the fruit, not the wine made from squeezing those small orbs.

People like Joe Dutton can give you a real idea of the conundrum farmers find themselves in. Dutton’s family has grown fruit in Sonoma County since 1881 when the family planted prune trees produced by Luther Burbank. Today, Gail, Steve and Joe Dutton grow both apples and grapes. And while the Duttons’ apple operation makes money, the real profit is in grapes. “We keep our costs as low as possible [on apples]; it’s just the economics of things. It’s great that Gravs are solid in terms of demand; Slow Food has helped with that. But if it wasn’t for the demand for organic, it would be a problem,” Dutton says.

The family has 1,100 acres in grapes, and just 200 acres in apples. “We were looking at expanding the land we grow apples on just a little while ago, and we still might. But we’re in a holding pattern for now,” he says

To be sure, the overall economic misery makes it easier for Dutton and other farmers to hold tight rather than expand apple production. But there are some specific economic disincentives at work as well. In 2009, it was cheaper to buy and ship commercial, nonorganic apples from Washington State than to purchase organic ones grown locally. Cheap apple juice (from concentrate), imported from China, hurts local farmers as well. This helps explain the rotting fruit lying in the orchards as I walk the land. Finally, there’s the most obvious reason to dump the apple in favor of grapes: a higher per-acre yield and profit.

Slow Food Russian River applied to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity to make the Gravenstein the first “Presidia” in California and one of only six nationwide. In laymen’s terms, the “Presidia” is the acknowledgement (by Slow Food International) of a food’s cultural value, its significance for local biodiversity, the method by which it’s farmed and the possibility of it becoming endangered.

“‘Presidia’ is Latin for fortress, so it’s about building a fortress around endangered food,” says Paula Shatkin, the local Presidium Coordinator and a social worker by trade. Since the Presidia was granted, the local Slow Food chapter created an ambitious campaign to not only heighten local awareness of the plight of the Gravenstein, but to raise demand to make the apple a more solid bet for farmers economically. Local processor Manzana Products is also working with Slow Food to find new ways to use and market local apples.

The Gravenstein has its own built in challenges. To begin with, a new tree planted today will take several years to produce fruit and only bears a full harvest every other year—that’s a tough nut for farmers anxious to get to the payout window. The Gravenstein isn’t the easiest variety of apples to raise, and it has a short harvest window, making it a labor-intensive exercise. It also doesn’t travel well, limiting the markets growers and distributors can tap.

On the other hand, it’s the first fresh apple available locally, giving growers an advantage in the marketplace.

Last August, almost 70 eateries featured the heirloom apple on their menus to make diners more aware of the local fruit. From the exalted tables at Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville to the more modest offerings of Rustic Bakery in Larkspur, the Grav made guest appearances, adding a tart flavor while gently reminding those who toil in those restaurants that local foods need love, too.

This is to say nothing of the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair at Ragle Ranch in Sebastopol. The yearly event raises money for the Sonoma County Farm Trails Map and Guide but, in reality, is simply an excellent excuse to step back to a place where blackberries are still a fruit and finishing a whole apple pie in one sitting is a contest and not a source of recovering Catholic guilt.

In October, Sonoma State University hosted its Slow Food Chapter’s “Good Eats & Music” event, shining a light on local food, with the Grav among the tastes available to attendees. In an ironic twist, Assemblywoman Noreen Evans was among the local dignitaries shaking hands and kissing babies. But rather than simply being another pol riding the coattails of an event, Evans brought her own genuine foodie credentials with her as a former delegate to Slow Food’s international gathering on sustainable food in Italy.

As I write this story on an Apple laptop, I’m drinking an Ace Premium Hard Cider, munching on a slice from Mom’s Apple Pie. Earlier, I had a Waldorf salad dressed in apple cider vinaigrette featuring diced apples along with a pork chop and applesauce. My day began with a glass of organic apple juice and a fresh apple fritter.

If the Gravenstein apple goes down, it will not be my fault. I am so deep into apples that the doctor will be months trying to get at my door.

An apple a day

The Grav is certainly receiving plenty of local push, but it’s still dogged by a historic past and a future that may be destined for the wrong side of ledger.

The history of the Gravenstein is muddled by fact and fiction. It’s alternately celebrated as originally grown in Germany or Denmark, with Duke Augustenburg’s gardens in Castle Graefenstein in Schleswig-Holstein serving as the birthplace. On the other hand, some legends hold the apple was native to Italy and made its way out of the boot via a Danish prince.

By the time the apple arrived here, most historians agree the Grav piggybacked with the Russian American Trading Company in 1812 and was planted at Fort Ross along with cherries, pears and peaches. When Wilhelm Benitz managed (1843), leased (1845) then bought (1849) much of the property, he was farming well-established trees. Through several successive decades and owners, apples were delivered to San Francisco via sailing ship.

But the gent who looms large in Gravenstein lore is Nathaniel Griffith, who bought 85 acres of land in Sebastopol and became known as the “Grandfather of the Gravenstein,” which is certainly better than “Ace of the Apple” or “Farmer Father of the Fruit.” Tales hold that Luther Burbank aided Griffith in choosing to plant the Grav, with Burbank observing, “If the Gravenstein could be had through the year, no other apple need be grown.” This is hearty praise indeed, given that 7,000 varieties of apples are grown, though in Burbank’s day far fewer were available.

In 1920, Sonoma County counted better than 11,000 acres in apple production with all varietals. Long before Sonoma became Wine Country, the Gravenstein was the building block for an economy built on agriculture. In 1958, the year the Giants would leave New York for San Francisco, Sonoma was alive with apple production of all kinds. While farmers of nearly 6,000 acres produced the early harvest Grav, it was used for applesauce, cider, juice and vinegar as well as fresh sales in roadside stands. The fruit was even used for applejack, a Gravenstein-based brandy. Apple plants and dehydrators blossomed in the county as families like Hallberg, Frei, Hotle, O’Connell, Barlow and Silveira became well known in the region.

But competition from other apples as well as rival states and even countries began to take its toll on the Gravenstein empire. Other factors associated with modern farming weighed in as well. Urban encroachment and rising land prices helped some farmers decide to abandon the apple business. Some growers found sons and daughters reluctant to further the family farm. Finally, the emergence of winegrapes as the agricultural breadwinner helped others wave good-bye to the Gravenstein.

The farmers’ dilemma

What is the future of the Gravenstein? For a few farmers like Lee Walker, apples are a way of life. Walker farms other varieties besides the Gravenstein, but acknowledges the recent attention paid to the Grav helps. “I tip my hat to the Slow Food people. There are lots of local people who’ve always known and loved the Gravenstein, but now there are more who understand how good it is.”

For Walker, the Gravenstein carries a high value, as it makes up 40 percent of his total apple crop. But in the long run, he’s unsure what will become of the heirloom fruit. “Grapes still command a lot more money, and the Gravenstein only has a 30-day window to harvest—plus, it’s a hard crop to raise.”

Walker points to the numbers to make his case. “Someplace around 85 to 90 percent [of the Gravenstein crop] goes into processing for juice or apple sauce, with the rest going to sale in the market as fresh. As long as demand for processing stays solid, it’s great.”

Suzanne Kaido, co-owner/president of Manzana Products, which produces products for many supermarkets under private labels as well as for its own North Coast brand, says her company has always “done its utmost to support the local apples. Organics are more popular than commercial.”

“The biggest and best apples go to applesauce, while smaller apples go to apple juice,” she explains. “Employees then sort through to remove flawed apples—ones that may be overripe, sunburned or have other defects—which end up in apple cider vinegar. Even the scraps, such as stem pieces, blossom ends or dried bits of apples that have had the juice pressed out go to the local dairies for cow food. No part of any apple is wasted at Manzana.”

In the end, basic economics will dictate what becomes of the Gravenstein, though the efforts of Slow Food advocates can help influence those decisions. For instance, Joe Dutton will choose to keep his 200 acres of apple trees in production as long as there’s demand for those apples at a price that lets his business farm them at a profit. Dutton enjoys the luxury of farming grapes as well, so it’s possible his family may choose to farm apples even at a loss, if the grapes make a large enough profit to subsidize the Gravs.

But for other apple farmers, that option doesn’t exist. They need to live with whatever price and demand the Gravenstein brings. As the gap between apples and grape prices grows, it becomes easier for apple farmers to pull trees in favor of vines. Tradition is nice, but it’s hard to pay bills with it.

Highlights in Apple Culture—Sort Of

Adam and Eve eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam chokes on a piece lodged in his throat and Eve squeezes his chest from behind, inventing the Heimlich Maneuver and the Adam’s apple at the same time.

Sir Isaac Newton discovers gravity in 1665 after watching an apple drop from a tree. He comments, “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” coining that familiar phrase at the same time. Later he creates the Fig Newton and makes a fortune.

William Tell, prior to writing the “William Tell Overture” and then selling the music rights for the “Lone Ranger” theme, shot an apple off of his son’s head. What most people don’t realize is that Tell only hit the apple on his fourth try, after accounting for a wind shift, but not before hitting his son three times in the right shoulder, forever giving him the unfortunate moniker “Lefty.”

Johnny Appleseed (in real life John Chapman, 1774-1845) spent his days walking the states of Ohio, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois planting apple seeds, establishing nurseries and preaching the Bible. What makes Appleseed’s feat more impressive is he walked the quartet of states without an endorsement deal from Nike.

J.T. Stinson, not an actual doctor, though he did play one on TV, proudly announces, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Stinson’s proclamation is disparaged as “pure rubbish” by the American Medical Association while Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente release a joint statement calling Stinson an “alarmist.” Stinson later goes on to found Stinson Beach when he realizes that rich San Franciscans need someplace to buy land on which to spend their summers.

Finally, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs name Apple computer after the fruit when Jobs convinces Wozinack calling it “Woz” “won’t let us compete with IBM.”  Jobs later goes on to invent the black turtleneck.