Saving the Apple: Pressing, eating and drinking

If you have lemons, you make lemonade. If you have apples, you make apple juice, apple sauce, baked apples, apple pie, apple butter and applejack—which can be intoxicating. In Sonoma County, where the apple was once the queen of ag and the grape a knave, the folks at Slow Food Russian River created, not long ago, the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium. Unanimously, they adopted the Gravenstein as a “presidia,” and created a “community apple press,” which is the only one of its kind in the U.S., though there are many in England and a few scattered across Canada and Australia.

In SFRR lingo, the Grav is “traditional, good tasting, sustainably produced and represents a sense of place and culture.” The Bodega Red Potato, which was once widely cultivated in West County, is also a “presidia,” and like the Grav, it’s endangered. Global competition cratered the market for the local apple and the local potato.

If a green apple is the Beatles’ icon and New York is the Big Apple, Sebastopol is the early autumnal apple in a landscape where orchards meet kitchens, and apple juice and apple cider flow like wine. Associated in the Bible and in classical art with sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Grav has become a symbol of resilience, revival and rebirth.

In the wake of the 2000 pandemic, which put a dent in nearly everything, including the cause to save the Grav, the cause has bounced back with unexpected friends and allies among the crowd of newcomers from urban centers who have settled in rural Sonoma and fallen in love with its past.

Paula Shatkin saw the devastation of the apple orchards right before her eyes, soon after she moved to Sonoma County from L.A. with her husband David. “We should do something about the apples,” Paula said at a meeting. Michael Dimock, who aided the start of the chapter, or “convivium,” told her, “Yeah, you.”

At about the same time, his environmental organization, Roots of Change, received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Some of the funds went to SFRR and boosted the apple project, which has become a calling for a group hell-bent on saving the fruit from a tree that once grew wild, that humans in Central Asia began cultivating thousands of years ago, and that spread to Europe and North America. John Chapman, the legendary gardener Johnny Appleseed, created countless nurseries and became a missionary for his favorite fruit.

“The apple project now takes up at least half my life,” Paula Shatkin tells me. “I learned about organizing through trial and error. At a public meeting, I said ‘we need food not alcohol.’ Someone replied, ‘You’re not gonna tell me what I can do with my land.’”

The idea of doing something to save the apples rubbed some property owners the wrong way, but it also found converts and has grown into a vibrant movement, despite what might be called “the war against the apple.” Or maybe because of the war.

“The apple is an icon, like the whale, panda, polar bear or any endangered critter for which people rally,” Dimock tells me. “Saving Gravensteins has been part of the fight to save food-plant diversity and the diversity of Sonoma County ag.”

Over the past three decades, sturdy, beautiful, fruit-producing apple trees, from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol and from Graton to Freestone, have been cut down with chain saws or bulldozed and ripped out by their roots. Like Paula Shatkin and others, I’ve seen orchards decimated to make room for pinot, cab, chardonnay and more. I’ve also watched the community rally around the Grav.

It doesn’t help to demonize grape growers and winemakers. Long ago, Forrest Tanzer, one of the founders of Iron Horse in Forestville, took me on a tour of the vineyard and winery and pointed to the new houses on the ridge. “If it weren’t for grapes, this place would be like San Jose,” he said. Paul Downing, a Slow Food stalwart and major player in the apple cause, agrees. “Grape growers are farmers, too,” she says.

Apple lovers have been known to shed tears at the sight of chain-sawed trees, but they also flex their muscles. In 2004, a group of impassioned folks got together and formed a group dubbed the “Apple Core,” a whimsical name if ever there was one.

Over the past seven years—with the notable exception of the 2020 pandemic year—members of the Core have operated the Sebastopol Apple Press from August to October, the height of the apple season. This year for the first time, the Core has mandated masks and vaccinations for everyone, whether they’re volunteers or participants.

On Saturdays, Core members congregate at the Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment, where they meet and greet local farmers, ranchers and back-to-the-landers, helping them press their apples and make juice. This year the press began to operate Aug. 7. Some swear the ghosts of Luther Burbank and Johnny Appleseed hovered nearby and cheered.

The Sebastopol apple project aims not only to save trees (malus domestica) and salvage fruit, but also to safeguard the livelihood of ranchers and farmers. If, as environmentalist Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act,” eating local apples in season is crucial if ag is to survive in these parts.

It takes a whole community to keep the Core up and running. Help has come from the County of Sonoma, the City of Sebastopol, the Western Sonoma County Historical Society, as well as from artisan cider makers Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath at Tilted Shed Ciderworks, and Jolie Devoto and Hunter Wade at Golden State Cider.

Lawyer Bob Burke has worked with the Core for years. “I like diversified ag, which is pleasing to the eye, rather than mono cultures which aren’t good for the planet,” he tells me. Burke enjoys time away from his desk and his office and in the open air, where he can “give back to the community and meet wonderful people.”

Kristy and John Godfrey, both ex-New Yorkers, recently moved to a two-acre parcel in Sebastopol with about 60 apple trees. Kristy loves the Gravs, she says, because they have “a nice balance of sweet and tart.” She adds that soon after she and her husband, John, moved to Sonoma County they learned much of the apple’s lore and history and were “excited to be a part of the apple industry.”

John says that he and Kristy are not in it for the money, and don’t see apples as a “cash crop.” Rather, they’re “motivated by a desire to save the trees and be a force for good.” The Godfrey’s apples are destined for Apple-a-Day Ratzlaff Ranch in Sebastopol where generations of family members have grown Gravs. The Ratzlaffs make heavenly apple juice, sold by the pint—for $2.19—the quart and the gallon at Mollie Stone’s, Andy’s, Oliver’s and Whole Foods. “U-pick“ is a popular option.

Michael Dimock planted his first apple tree in Santa Rosa about a decade ago. Five years later he harvested his first crop. Dimock grows organically. His apples have worms, which don’t bother him. His godmother, Louise Smith, owns an orchard in Graton. Michael visits her and her daughter, Julie, during apple season and enjoys apple strudel and apple gallant. Lucky man.

If and when apples are no longer grown in Sonoma, he will miss them dearly. “I feel sad about the decline and fall of the apple empire,” he says. “I also understand why that’s happening in our capital-driven system.”

Like many SFRR members, Dimock is anxious about the future of the Grav, which has a short shelf-life, doesn’t ship well and relies on local demand for sales, revenue and survival.

“Global warming might soon make it too warm for Gravensteins,” Dimock tells me. “Either because they will not get enough chill hours or because pests will overwhelm orchards.” What he finds heartening is the local cider industry, which has grown steadily during the past few years and which must have apples to exist.

These days, a ton of organic apples will bring a grower $350; $250 a ton for conventional. A ton of grapes is way more than that. In Napa, Cab fetches close to $8,000 a ton and in Sonoma about $3,000 a ton. You do the math. There’s now an oversupply of grapes, and as one wine-industry group noted, “wildfires, economic uncertainty, politics and a worldwide pandemic have all conspired to shake our core.” Grapes might go the way of raspberries, prunes and hops—which were once major crops.

Meanwhile, in Sonoma County big-time grape growers like the Dutton family also grow apples. They have over 1,000 acres in grapes and 200 acres in apples. Newcomers to the county, such as the Godfreys and Shari Figi, also hearten apple lovers. Figi, a recent arrival, owns a three-acre parcel with 50 trees. She wants to improve the sorry state of her orchard and make her trees productive again. “I’m looking out for myself,” she tells me. She’s also looking out for the apples. “It would be a shame,” she says, “to lose our wonderful history.”

Figi will hire hands to harvest the fruit. Like most agricultural labor, it can be back breaking and often requires climbing up and down ladders, gathering apples and adding them to bins which can hold a ton. “It’s fascinating to watch the Mexican guys work,” Downing tells me. “They prune and they pick and they can identify each and every apple tree, even without leaves. All that for $20 to $25 an hour.”

To the laborers, we owe a debt of gratitude.

To make a reservation to press your apples from now until Oct. 24, go to www.slowfoodrr.org.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.”

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