An Apple A Day

By: Grainne Rhuad

Back in my college days I was taking an off the maps hike with a friend of mine in upper Bidwell Park, Chico, CA.  Okay, it’s probably on a map somewhere, but we had crossed the creek at the end of the obvious trail and were kinda following the water, taking detours around obstructions, etc.  We were about two hours in when we came upon a grassy acre or so with very old abandoned apple trees.  I’m not an arborist but even I could see these trees were easily over 100 years old.  It was kinda of sad this small orchard sitting abandoned in an area left to go wild.  At the same time it was incredibly encouraging.  Not that the dried up apples hanging from the trees would have been good, those would have been awful had we tried them, but the thought that this was at sometime cultivated, then left and the apple trees, they lived on.  Obviously we have the right types of soil and weather conditions to support them all on their own. 

Then, several years later, when I moved to the mountain community of Cohasset about 15 miles outside of Chico, CA, one of the first housewarming gifts I received were a pair of cherry trees that had been taken from a mother tree that a family friend had grown there for probably 20 years. 

While helping us plant them we were told about the amazing apple orchards that once supported the now small community.  According to a thesis posted on the Cohasset Community website:  “It was learned that the combination of the elevation and suitable soil conditions produced an excellent quality of crisp apples that encouraged rapid expansion; many apple orchards, some relatively large, were planted to the exception of other fruit.

“Samples of Cohasset apples submitted to the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition (April 30 to December 1) won the silver medal for Thomas H. Benton Polk and the bronze medal for Augustus B. Hartt of Cohasset, the latter for his Stamen Winesap variety.  Mr. Polk purchased his property in the 1870s and built a farm on Vilas Road. Although his orchard has been completely neglected, remnants of it can yet be seen despite the unrestrained growth of brush and trees around the original fruit trees. In the spring time the blossoming of the apple trees make them distinctive from the others. Polk’s barn became noted locally as the home of many barn swallows; these birds returned to it each year as faithfully as those of Mission San Juan Capistrano.”

He also entered his apples at an exhibition in Watsonville, California in 1911 Dix entered sixteen varieties and won thirteen gold medals, thereby attaining for Butte County the best record for high quality apples of any county in the state.

“Soon thereafter apples were the main produce of the mountain community and the fruit was principally marketed in the valley communities with a large percentage being sold in Chico. The Wells Fargo Company developed a brisk two-way trade with Mexico, exchanging Cohasset apples for Mexican oranges and tangerines which had a ready market in Northern California.”

 There are almost no signs beyond struggling left behind trees of this apple boom, although the conditions for growing have not changed. 

The reason for the end of apple farming was cheaper apples being brought to stores from out of state.  So it was with a bit of sadness and commiseration that I read about the same thing happening currently in Sonoma County. 

Sonoma County, in its apple growing heyday supported more than 13,000 acres of apple orchard.  The groves consisted of scores of varieties and supported hundreds of farmers.  (Source:

But one by one, Sonoma County’s apple farmers are giving up. Though apples are the nation’s most popular fruit, they are relatively worthless in Sonoma County, where wine grapes draw more than ten times the price per ton and where imported apples on local market shelves are often cheaper than locally grown ones. Today, fewer than 3,000 acres of apple trees remain countywide, and just one processing and packing plant is still in business.

Now, some farmers aren’t even bothering to harvest with apples fetching less than 6 cents a pound.  It isn’t worth their while. Today, Chinese apples outnumber American apples seven to one and in 2010 amounted to 36 million tons–roughly half of all apples grown on earth. The reason for this is, of course, cost.  Some come less than 2 cents a pound, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

China’s apples are barred from import into the United States, but not its apple juice concentrate, which is what is crushing Sonoma County’s farmers. This product, often shipped frozen, is the basic ingredient of much of the world’s apple juice and other juice products. China is now the world’s largest exporter of apple juice concentrate, and its biggest buyer is the United States, where two-thirds of all apple juice consumed comes from China.

The remaining apple orchards are thinking of things like selling out, changing to another crop (like grapes), etc.  But what would be lost without these orchards?  

Diversity is what would be lost. Sure wine grapes are great and a whole industry of bed and breakfasts; high end restaurants, etc have sprung up around the “wine country” of Sonoma County.  Heck, even Washington State, famous for its apples is beginning to get into the wine growing craze.

But, a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem is also the hallmark of a healthy economic system and in a state like California where produce is a major part of everything that is good about living here; losing diversity would be a troubling thing.

Besides which, there is nothing that is grown anywhere in the world that tastes as good as something plucked fresh from a tree and sold directly to you.  Or eaten as you pick it, as the case may be. 

Sure, apples from other places may be cheaper and we all want cheaper, but what about the loss of nutrients as they are picked early and shipped long distances?  What about the flavor and general lack of variety that occurs when stores buy just for cost effectiveness? 

Another ridge over from the lost orchards of Cohasset is Noble Orchards in Paradise, CA.  It is the last working orchard on that ridge and it boasts seventeen varieties of apples.  Seventeen!  Have you ever seen more than four varieties in a store in your life?   

Not likely.  And considering the fact that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 7500 varieties grown worldwide that is just a sad, sad thing.   But here’s a list of about 80 and what they taste like:

Most of these are never going to be available in the stores because they just don’t make the trip well, so losing orchards means losing apples, maybe forever. 

Which would be sad, because if the old saying “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.” is true, I do not want to have to eat the same red delicious apple every day.

5 Comments on “An Apple A Day”

  1. Thank you Grainne Rhuad: It was more or less the same over here in the UK about twenty years ago when a French Apple began to overtake British brands. Tens of thousands of trees were uprooted and orchards destroyed. People soon longed for the old varieties and they are making a great comeback: Granny Smith (see my latest post) and my absolute favourite Cox’s Orange Pippin are now knocking the French for six……………….Mike..

  2. Great article. Loosing biodiversity is a major concern of mine. It seems as if the instant gratification mindset and a give it to me cheap attitude are the big culprets of the degredation of our diversity. When eco systems start to crash so will we. How can we create health, thriving families and communities with out healthy thriving environments? BTW one of my favorite Noble Orchard apple is the Pink Lady and the Brandywine. I’ve never had a better apple. Ever.

  3. Grainne, I recall living in Santa Cruz and going with my mother to the fields in Watsonville and picking up the leftovers that weren’t harvested; but had dropped ot the ground. We had apple pies all year long from those fun outtings.

    It saddens me that we are so narrow minded that we eliminate the very things that keep us healthy. Apples provide a wonderful source of nutrition and roughage. They should be a staple in every child’s diet. Thank you for sharing this article. It really makes me wonder where we are going. Wine is more important than health? Wow!

  4. I do not trust the corporate apples. All of our apples have to be imported, so i spent my childhood never tasting an absolutely fresh one until we visited relatives that lived in the Yakama Valley. I suddenly realized what eating apples was all about. My next absolutely fresh one was in the high mountains of Oaxaca. It tasted so good, i had to wipe the drool from my face.

    Times are changing around here. Where once the only apples we could grow were crab apples, which are not tasty at all, we can now grow hybrids. The cross breeding makes the apple taste a bit like a winesap apple, but i think they are delicious. Speaking of which, i don’t really care that much for Delicious apples. I like my apples crunchy, but that means i do like the green delicious and granny smith apples. Back to why i don’t like corporate apples… for one, they have no flavor at all. Nothing to excite me and keep eating them. For another, they disturb me. Because all our apples do have to be imported, i’m accustomed to them having a relatively short shelf life; of them developing bruises and shriveling up sometimes. But i bought some apples that were on sale for an incredibly cheap price at Fred Myers one Christmas season. All the apples were eaten in a very short time except one, that kind of stayed forgotten in the course of other fresh fruits that we enthusiastically added to our menu. In late spring of that year, while cleaning out the refrigerator, i noticed the apple was still there and looked as fresh as it did when i bought it. I threw it away. There is something unnatural about an apple that doesn’t age, doesn’t develop bruises and doesn’t shrivel. I’m sure whatever they’ve done to produce this “perfect” apple can’t be good for you at all.

  5. Actually, if you store Apples right they can keep for up to 4 months. They need to be in a dark, cold, moisture controlled place. So if it was in the fridge and there was no condensation, than it may have been normal. Apples used to be harvested and kept in root cellars in sand or dry clean straw at typically 55-65 degrees (f) that’s what the temp. is typically underground.

    I am with you on the flavors though and keeping times of lots of things freak me out. I picked up some peppers from a grocery that lasted 2 months and that was strange.

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