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									California’s Disappearing Apple Orchards


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Though apples are the nation's most popular fruit, they are relatively worthless in
Sonoma County, California.
Patti McConville / Alamy



Sonoma County is among the most esteemed wine-growing areas in the world, but it
used to be famous for a different crop. Located just north of San Francisco, this region
of rolling hills, vast dairy spreads and conifer forests flanking the coast was once the
heart of a thriving apple industry. In its heyday in the early and mid 20th century,
more than 13,000 acres of apple orchards blanketed the county. These groves
consisted of scores of varieties and supported hundreds of farmers.

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.

“The industry as a whole is almost finished,” says Dave Hale, who began growing
apples three decades ago on the outskirts of Sebastopol, a hub of artists, hippies and
farmers. Since then, Hale has watched the industry shrink steadily. In 2010, Hale
didn’t even bother harvesting his crop of Rome Beauties. The wholesale price for
flawless, tree-ripened fruit was barely 6 cents a pound—$125 per ton, two grand an
acre. The sodden, spoiled fruits of last year’s fruit linger on the ground.

Hale’s neighbors have already given up. Standing at the southern edge of his 20-acre
orchard, Hale peers through a wire fence at the adjacent property. Among the trees,
the weeds stand knee-deep; the orchard was last harvested in 2008. New owners are
planning to remove the apple trees and replace them with grapevines. This fate is a
tirelessly common one in the county, where 56,000 acres of wine grapes crawl up
trellises staked into the earth. On the north side of Hale’s farm, the land has already
been converted; an apple orchard until seven years ago, it now bears a bucolic sign at
the front gate with calligraphic letters reading, “Susanna’s Vineyard.”
Wine grapes are where the money is, and with a ton of Sonoma County grapes going
for $2,000 on average, the incentive for apple farmers to switch to grapes or sell out is
huge. Farmer Ted Klopt succumbed to this temptation ten years ago, when he was
receiving just $120 per ton of apples. He planted his orchards in Pinot Noir grapes. He
has no regrets. He says he grew many kinds of apples, which ripened at different
times between July and November, keeping him and his crew working steadily
throughout the autumn. By contrast, his grapes, when deemed ready for the crush, can
be stripped from the vines all at once. “Grapes take less work,” Klopt says. “I can
harvest in one or two days instead of over four months, and I get more money.”

The local wine industry’s rise has helped spur the apple industry’s fall, but another
force is also at play: global competition and the bizarre economic dynamic that can
make goods produced half the world away cheaper than those from down the road.
Chile, New Zealand and Australia all export either fresh apples or juice concentrate to
the United States. But no nation now plays as pivotal a role in the global apple
industry as China. In its northwestern provinces on and around the Loess Plateau, a
colossal expansion of apple orchards has occurred since the early 1990s, when China
produced about the same amount of apples as America. 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. What’s more, they’re dirt cheap–some less
than 2 cents a pound, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

China’s fresh apples are tumbling into foreign markets worldwide, undercutting prices
of locally grown fruit. In Australia, the first Chinese apples since the 1920s entered
the country in January 2011, raising objections from local industry leaders and
farmers, who urged shoppers not to buy them. 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.

Lee Walker, a third-generation owner of one of the oldest apple farms in Sonoma
County, remembers when the apple business first changed dramatically. “In the
1980s, China started exporting juice concentrate and selling it for half of our price,”
Walker says. “We lost our floor.”
The facilities that bought and processed his apples and those of other Sonoma County
farmers went under as national produce companies turned increasingly to the cheap
concentrate from China, and by 2004, Manzana Products Company, a large gray
aerodrome-like facility, was the last processor in town.

Elsewhere, along the roadways and bike paths that cut through the area’s woods,
relics of the apple-growing glory days remain: A pair of rail cars once used by an
apple shipper lie in a field; a cluster of warehouses, once home to an apple-processing
company, contain steel tanks full of wine. And in a tidy suburban cul-de-sac on Gail
Lane, old apple trees sprout here and there from the trimmed green lawns, reminders
of the day when this was a 20-acre orchard.
Farmer Gene Calvi lives here. While he has maintained the six acres of trees behind
his home, his neighbors have removed nearly all their apple trees over the past 30
years and replaced them with neat hedges, rock gardens and grassy lawns. Calvi
thinks that Sonoma County’s apple industry may be doomed. “I just don’t see what
can keep it together,” he says. Calvi notes that Manzana was recently offering farmers
$45 per ton for bruised or otherwise damaged “vinegar apples.”

“It costs me about $40 per ton to pay my sons to clean them up,” Calvi says. “That
leaves me five bucks per ton.”

								
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