Losing and Saving the Apple: a Tale of Capital, Labor and Organizing

Photo: Kimberly Willson-St. Clair.

Long ago, the apple industry coined and popularized the slogan, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” A recent study concludes that the available evidence does not support that notion. Still, it appears that U.S. adults who eat an apple a day “use fewer prescription medications” than those who don’t eat an apple a day. In Sebastopol, California, eating apples, as well as growing and harvesting apples, was once an essential part of the culture, and at the heart of the economy of the whole region. It was an act of patriotism and local pride to consume apples.

At harvest, the whole town of Sebastopol, where I lived for nearly 40 years, smelled of riple apples and stank of the waste product of the apples when they were turned into juice and sauce. The railroad brought apples from orchards to processing plants. The tracks once went down the center of Main Street. Then progress, suburbanization and gentrification arrived, the tracks were ripped up and Main Street became one-way.

Orchards were subdivided, houses, some of them McMansions were built and sold, and vineyards soon spread across the whole landscape. Grapes are now the monocrop; everywhere one turns it looks nearly the same, with rows and rows of grapes running uphill and downhill and across valleys in military fashion. It’s a similar story elsewhere around the world, though the crop differs.

Capital calls the tune and the global marketplace makes the rules local communities live by. Still, even in Sebastopol or perhaps especially in Sebastopol, citizens and organizations have formed and fought to save the apples, apple orchards and the livelihood of those who harvest them. It’s an uphill battle, but it provides individuals with a sense of belonging, gives them roots and makes freshly squeezed apple juice readily available three months of the year, from August through October.

I have diabetes and I’m not supposed to drink it; it’s super rich in sugar and in that sense it’s bad for health, but sometimes I’m tempted and can’t resist. A glass of apple juice makes me feel, well, juiced, and the story of the survival of the apple also juices me

Not long ago, in Sonoma County, where the apple was once the queen of ag and the grape a knave, the members of Slow Food Russian River (SFRR)—a subdivision of the international organization, Slow Food— created the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium. Unanimously, they adopted the Gravenstein (aka the Grav) 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. The apple press doesn’t serve profit but rather people.

In SFRR lingo, the Grav is “traditional, good tasting, sustainably produced and represents a sense of place and culture.” Terroir might be a world to sum up what it means. The Bodega Red Potato, which was once also widely cultivated by farmers in west Sonoma County, is a “presidia,” and, like the Grav, it too is 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 2020 pandemic, which put a dent in nearly everything world wide, including the cause to save the Grav, the campaign has bounced back with unexpected friends and allies among the crowd of newcomers from urban centers who have settled in rural Sonoma and have fallen in love with its ag past. Environmentalism makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

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 SFRR chapter or “convivium,” told Paula, “Yeah, you.” An activist and self-defined “thought leader on sustainable food and farming systems,”he chose her wisely, though spontaneously.

Dimock’s environmental organization, Roots of Change (ROC), received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Some of the funds went to SFRR. They 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 began to be cultivated by humans in Central Asia 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. For them, property rights trump all others. But the apple cause also found converts. It has grown into a vibrant movement, despite what might be called “the war against the apple.” Or maybe because of the war. Try to suppress something and it comes back stronger than before.

“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 else 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. It’s a sad sight. I’ve also watched the community rally around the Grav.

Politically, it doesn’t help to demonize grape growers and winemakers. Long ago, Forrest Tanzer, one of the founders of Iron Horse in Forestville— which once provided the champagne for the White House—took me on a tour of the vineyard he planted 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 with them. “Grape growers are farmers, too,” she says. Indeed they are. They might also be endangered and want and need defenders and defending. Capital spares no one and has no favorites except those that bring in top dollar.

Apple juice lovers have been known to shed tears at the sight of chain-sawed trees, but they have also flexed their muscles. In 2004, a group of impassioned juice lovers 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, help them press their apples and make juice. This year the press began to operate August 7. Some swear the ghost of Luther Burbank—who farmed in Sonoma County and experimented with crops— hovered nearby and cheered as did the ghost of Johnny Appleseed who wanted Americans to drink applejack.

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 for the preservation of diversified farming in the region.

Literally, 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 and 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, which he helped to create, 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 the “Apple-a-Day Ratzlaff Ranch” in Sebastopol where hard-working generations of family members have grown Gravs. The Ratzlaffs make the sweetest apple juice, sold by the pint ($2.19), the quart and the gallon at a variety of northern California stores, including 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, but they 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 that has grown steadily over the past few years and that must have apples to exist. No apples, no cider.

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. Doomsday farmer Bob Cannard sees the day when the green valleys are desert. Already his wells dry up early in summer. No water, no ag.

Meanwhile, in Sonoma County big time grape growers like the Dutton family are also apple growers. They have over a thousand acres in grapes and 200 acres in apples.

Newcomers to the county, like the Godfreys and like Shari Figi have also heartened apple lovers at SFRR. 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 huge bins which can hold a ton and require a forklift to move. “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.” No one knows the apples better than the men (they’re all men) who harvest them.

To the laborers, we owe a debt of gratitude.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.