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2010: Year of the heirloom apple

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By Gary Nabhan

While the Chinese will be celebrating 2010 as the Year of the Tiger, we in America have historically had no tigers except those in zoos and circuses. But what we once have had many of — heirloom apples — are now in danger of becoming as rare as tigers are in Asia. Of some 15,000 to 16,000 apples varieties that have been named, grown and eaten on the North American continent, only about 3,000 remain accessible to American orchard-keepers, gardeners, chefs and home cooks. Four out of five apples varieties unique to North America have been lost from commerce, and most of these were lost just since World War II.


 Of the remaining fifth of the varieties still available, 81 percent are now “endangered” in the marketplace, with only one to three nurseries offering for sale to growers. If we also considered the “threatened varieties” offered by only four to six nurseries, 94 percent of the commercially-available apple diversity in North America is either threatened or endangered. Roughly nine out of 10 apples varieties historically grown in the U.S. are at risk of falling out of cultivation, and falling off our tables.

94 percent of the commercially-available apple diversity in North America is either threatened or endangered.

These are not just abstract statistics, for they affect not only our health, but the health of our landscapes, and because apple trees sequester much carbon, the health of the planet as a whole. Not even one fourth of the 20 million apple trees grown in the U.S. in 1900 remain in our orchards and gardens. Home apple production in the U.S. peaked between World Wars I and II, and now much of the apple juice, puree and sauce consumed in the United States is produced in other countries. One apple variety, Red Delicious, comprises 41 percent of the entire American apple crop, and 11 varieties produce 90 percent of all apples sold in chain grocery stores.


One driver of this decline in available apple diversity has been the demise of independently-owned nurseries, which have had their business usurped by the garden-and-lawn departments (“pseudo-nurseries’) of big-box stores. In a survey of 96 commercial nurseries that carried heirloom apples in 1988, 45 percent of them had gone out of business by 2009. However, a growing number of the remaining independently-owned nurseries are increasing their stock in heritage apple varieties.


Perhaps just as problematic is that over the last half century, there has been a dramatic loss of traditional knowledge about which apples grow best in a particular locality, how to graft cuttings of apple branches (scion wood) onto rootstock, when to harvest particular apple varieties for their flavor, and how to match particular varieties with the uses for which they are best suited. This loss of traditional knowledge has precipitated the loss of the much-celebrated “apple culture” of America that many of us associate with the likes of Johnny Appleseed, Abraham Lincoln, John Muir and Thomas Jefferson.


But the worst may be yet to come. Climate change is reducing the number of chill hours being received in apple-growing areas, leading to predictions that within four decades, apple production will be lost from the Central Valley of California and from southern Pennsylvania, as well as from many warmer localities found at lower elevations across the continent.


There are signs of hope, however. Despite the economic downturn, heirloom and heritage apple varieties are now being successfully marketed at many of the 5000 farmers markets and through many of the 2500 Community-Supported Agriculture projects in the U.S. Many of the 2000 Farm-to-School programs in the U.S. are incorporating heirloom apples back into the diets of our youth. These venues for direct-marketing apples have enjoyed 13 to 20 percent growth over the last couple years. Consumption of hard cider is also on the rise in America, offering a means to use many heirloom varieties not well-suited for eating fresh. Future market prospects for heirloom apples look good, both among chefs and cider makers.  


The Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance is now proposing that 90 endangered apple varieties in each region be earmarked for recovery to our orchards, cyderies, restaurants and kitchens. We encourage Home Orchard Societies and Fruit Explorer groups to continue their good work in training others to collect and store scion wood, to graft and to prune. 


We need to propagate trees, but apple-loving characters as well, such as Nick Botner, whose orchard of 4000 apples in Oregon may be the most diverse in all of North America! We also encourage others to seek out abandoned orchards that predate 1920, and restore them or take cuttings from them. We also wish to bring back American apple culture, proliferating pie tastings, cider making, and apple lore.

Gary Nabhan is the founder/facilitator, of Renewing America’s Food Traditions. 
See www.garynabhan.com.



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