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Sonoma County apple growers find their crop holds up well despite drought


As he walks the rows of his apple orchard in the hills west of Sebastopol, Stan Devoto can’t help picking fruit off the branch. The thinning will allow the remaining fruit to better thrive in a year that has now been classified locally as exceptional drought.

The apples need to be spaced between 4 to 8 inches on the branch so they can grow into flavorful varieties such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and more bitter ones that are used in hard cider. More than 100 different types of apples are harvested within Devoto’s 25-acre orchard. Because of the drought, the apples will be smaller when harvest kicks off in late July, which means the overall tonnage for the crop will be down in the county this year.

“We are thinning further apart this year and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Devoto, who has been farming on the land since 1976. That was right before the last time when there was such an extreme drought in the area.

“We got through it (the 1970s drought). But it is so dry here that weeds won’t even grow. It’s really crazy,” Devoto said.

Even with the difficult circumstances, apples are one of the best drought-resistant crops within the county along with olive trees whose fruit is used for making olive oil, said Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith.

“The standard apple trees have a much larger root system, and they go much larger into the soil profile. They are able to find that available soil moisture to use for growth,” Smith said.


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Farmers and environmentalists work hard to save Gravensteins


Cider as savior?

The Gravenstein, derived from Europe and named after a Danish castle, transformed west Sonoma County into one of the world’s premier apple growing regions. Its namesake highway (CA-116) now runs through what remains of Sonoma’s apple country, north of Sebastopol.

In recent years, however, this area has quietly become a destination for cider lovers, with some 10 cideries and a growing numbers of taprooms.

Paula Shatkin and her husband were driving along Sonoma County’s scenic back roads when she first noticed something was amiss.

“We saw apple orchards in bloom just being chopped down, willy-nilly, everywhere,” said Shatkin.

That was 18 years ago, right when vineyards were booming and apple farmers were having trouble making ends meet. The iconic Gravenstein had transformed west Sonoma County into one of the world’s premier apple growing regions. In the booming 1940s, nearly 15,000 acres in the county were planted with apple trees. By 2016, that number had fallen to about 2,200 acres.

“Whole orchards were being chopped down and made into vineyards, without a lot of work being done to make sure they weren’t damaging the ecosystem,” said Shatkin. “We were losing our biodiversity.”

Shatkin, a social worker, took action. She rallied local growers, preservationists and environmental advocates to create a local chapter of the Slow Food movement, an international effort to preserve local cuisines and promote biodiversity. “Save the Gravenstein” became a popular rallying cry on bumper stickers and store windows in west Sonoma County.

Shatkin’s Slow Food Russian River was soon on a mission to get more people excited about local apples. Shops in Sebastopol were handing out free, locally grown apples. Banners in town announced “The Gravensteins Are Coming” in July and “The Gravensteins Are Here” in August. The group acquired an apple press and invited residents to press juice at the Luther Burbank farm in Sebastopol.

“We have made a huge difference in the demand for Gravensteins at this point, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still losing apple acreage to vines, unfortunately,” said Shatkin. “But all these years one of our goals has been to help farmers raise the price-point of the apples so that they could maybe make a living growing apples.”


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Court orders E.P.A. to ban chlorpyrifos, pesticide tied to children’s health problems


A federal appeals court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday to bar within 60 days a widely used pesticide associated with developmental disabilities and other health problems in children, dealing the industry a major blow after it had successfully lobbied the Trump administration to reject a ban.

The order by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit came after a decade-long effort by environmental and public health groups to get the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, removed from the market. The product is used in more than 50 fruit, nut, cereal and vegetable crops including apples, almonds, oranges and broccoli, with more than 640,000 acres treated in California alone in 2016, the most recent year data is available.

In March 2017, just a month after he was confirmed as the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt rejected a petition by the health and environmental groups to ban the pesticide. He did so even though the agency’s own staff scientists had recommended that chlorpyrifos be removed from the market, based on health studies that had suggested it was harming children, particularly among farmworker families.

A three-judge panel, on a 2-to-1 vote, gave the agency two months to finalize the ban on the product, whose leading manufacturer is DowDuPont. The company, along with others in the pesticide and agriculture industry, had intensely lobbied the E.P.A. and Mr. Pruitt, who resigned under a cloud of ethics scandals last month.


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Apple season starts


…the county’s orchards have long been “dry farmed,” or without irrigation. Other regions, including parts of Washington and California, have proven far more productive, both with irrigation and with newer, high-density growing methods.

Apple season kicks off next Sunday with a celebration at the Sebastopol Farmers Market, where Slow Food Russian River will have a community apple press and fresh juice.

This Friday will mark the opening of Sonoma County Cider Week, an inaugural series of events with 10 craft cideries taking part.

The celebrations will continue Aug. 11 and 12 with the 45th Gravenstein Apple Fair at Sebastopol’s Ragle Ranch Park.

Apple season in Sonoma County

The Chevy flatbed farm truck has been hauling apples and other crops for 43 years. The small yellow tractor has been chugging through the orchards for over 50. And some of the nearby Gravenstein apple trees have been blossoming for nearly a century.

The farmer, Paul Kolling, is 63.

“We keep the old stuff going somehow,” said Kolling, standing in a sparse orchard in Sebastopol where a crew of workers Thursday shook trees and collected apples for cider vinegar.

Kolling, a former engineer who switched to apple farming four decades ago, was thinking about the half-century- old Massey Fergusson tractor, whose front and back ends each carried a wooden apple bin. The tractor wouldn’t start until the farmer adjusted a loose battery cable.

However, “the old stuff” just as easily could have referred to the orchard’s aged trees, a few of which keep producing apples though their insides are nearly hollowed out or the holes in their trunks are big enough to put a hand through.


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Op-Ed: After the grapes are gone


Our succession of boom crops in Sonoma County provides an interesting history — and a cautionary tale.

The county’s world-class wine grapes occupy more than 60,000 acres, with vineyard acreage expanding 80 percent between 1988 and 2014. Our climate, soils and location are ideal, and grapes are the current top crop, worth more than $400 million.

But, what will remain of our natural resources when markets and production shift? What will become of future generations’ inheritance of our region’s rich soils, water, forests, wildlife and fisheries?

As the past predicts the future, previously dominant crops over the past 160-plus years have been replaced with the next crops of gold. Early on, potatoes were large crops, now gone. Potato blight and erosion of coastal sandy loam soils helped destroy that crop’s viability by 1900, while adding huge sediment loads to coastal creeks and lagoons, damaging salmon and steelhead habitat.
By 1858, Sonoma County’s hops production exceeded $1 million (equivalent to $27 million in today’s dollars), producing thousands of harvest-time jobs. The industry declined rapidly during Prohibition and with changing tastes. After 1939, machine-picked hops shifted cultivation to operations outside Sonoma County. The year 1961 witnessed the last commercial crop.

By 1936, Healdsburg was labeled the “Buckle of the Prune Belt,” with plums exceeding 24,000 acres. Cherries, peaches and apples took turns as dominant regional crops. The first commercial apple orchards were planted in 1875, with Gravensteins the local favorite by 1915. At its peak in 1953, 27,000 acres produced a crop worth more than $5.5 million ($49 million today). By the 1990s, apple orchards were rapidly being replaced with grapes.

Poultry, with more than 50 million dozen eggs per year, was king for several generations until the shift to industrial production in the Central Valley. Pears, hay, dairy products (a $90 million industry), cattle, sheep and other crops have all had their eras of economic and agricultural triumph. We’ve harvested redwood, fir, salmon, eel, otters, seals, whales, murre eggs, ducks and egrets, mercury and gravel until resources were exhausted. Water is now subject to competing commercial, municipal, marijuana, wine and agricultural demands, all increasingly pitted against survival of native salmon.

European grapes were first planted in 1857. Despite phylloxera, Prohibition, economic depressions, droughts, freezes, floods and new threats of Esca fungi, demands for Sonoma wines have supported increasing acreage for premium grapes. Dry farmed rootstock has given way to higher-yield irrigated rootstock. Competition for scarce water, soils and appropriate microclimates is fierce, as the world market, investment strategies, real estate speculation, and vanity wineries have fueled development of more vineyards.

Tastes, prices, diseases, and access to processing and transportation all change. Tourists may grow tired of more winery events, while other world producers grab market share. Climate changes are impacting grape viability and suitable locations, affecting growing seasons, extreme temperatures, droughts, frosts and water reliability.

In 160 years, we’ve substantially changed Sonoma County’s landscape. What will happen in the next 50 years? As with past crops, the treasured domination of grapes may fade. When that happens, what condition will our local natural resources be in? Will the land and Russian River watershed still be healthy enough to host the next crops of gold?

Our responsibility is to assure that we preserve and restore fertile soil, clean and abundant surface and ground water, wetlands, forests and all fish and wildlife that depend on those resources — including us. Otherwise, our harvests of gold will disappear.

David Keller of Petaluma is Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River.


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New angle for Sonoma County apples


Stan Devoto wants to try something new in Apple Country: Plant an orchard, not with the tasty Gravenstein but with such bitter, hard cider varieties as Kingston black, Dabinett and Herefordshire redstreak.

In a west Sonoma County industry that has seen little but decline for half a century, Devoto is trying to build a new kind of apple business. He wants to grow fruit that doesn’t end up in juice or apple sauce but in an alcoholic beverage whose sales are growing faster than craft beer.

“I think there’s a future in that,” said Devoto, a longtime Sebastopol farmer and grape grower whose daughter and son-in-law have started a hard cider business. He even offered a startling prediction: If he can plant a new orchard, he can make almost as much money growing cider apples as growing winegrapes.

A few Sonoma County apple growers also have started producing hard cider, a fermented drink with an alcohol content similar to beer but more popular with women. While the efforts remain fledgling, they suggest a new avenue to keep alive an iconic west county crop for another generation.

via New angle for Sonoma County apples | The Press Democrat.