Forgotten Fruits: Conserving Apples in the Landscape

posted March 30, 2009

This is important work, Greenhorns. And good reading. The work of Slow Food and RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions).  Here’s hoping we’ll all be able to bite into a Red Astrachan or Yellow Transparent come fall.

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Madison, Wis – Apples and apple growers are in trouble. At one time, North America had over 14,000 apple varieties populating habitats from coast to coast. But in the 2001 Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory published by Seed Savers Exchange (Whealy, 2001), the number of apple varieties available to Americans through nursery stocks had dwindled to 1,500. The continued tragedy is that in 2009, only 11 apples comprise 90% of what Americans access and enjoy.

On March 19th, 2009, apple experts from around the country met in Madison, Wisconsin to talk about apple diversity in the United States, using their collective knowledge to discuss solutions for how to conserve apples in the landscape, including restoration strategies, genetic mapping and farmer training programs.

Under the leadership of Dr. Gary Nabhan, founder and facilitator of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) alliance, and Jenny Trotter of Slow Food-USA, nearly 20 apple experts assembled for a “Forgotten Fruits Summit” to discuss the alarming decline of apple varieties and identify strategies for maintaining apples in the landscape.

Nabhan noted that “apples once flourished on farmsteads in early America… they were nurtured by farmers and landowners. But we are losing [these orchards], the agricultural lands and knowledge of how to care for them… It is time to link people committed to land conservation with those interested in preserving the diversity of foods to put them back on our tables.”

The apple growers gathered to discuss fruit restoration activities from their home regions as a step towards creating a collective national strategy for heirloom fruit conservation. As Nabhan noted, the gathering was not just about saving specific apple varieties, but about “saving apple culture. These apple growers have all worked so hard in their parts of the country to grow apples and record their names and stories. Each is so intent on rescuing apple history in their neck of the woods, that they never had time to meet each other.”

This collection of apple enthusiasts have spent their entire lives grafting, pruning, harvesting, pressing, enjoying and fighting for apples. Ironically, most of them had never met each other face-to-face until their Madison workshop. Tom Burford, noted apple grower, historian, writer and educator, described the importance of the meeting: “A decade ago, I would never have dreamed that we would be together in this room… that we would be a driving force to help nurture the future of the apple in America.” And their work couldn’t come at a more critical time to preserve our threatened genetic varieties and cultural knowledge.

But fruit restoration work is not just for the experts; it is the responsibility of everyone. Nabhan states that “we all have to re-imagine this apple culture we are talking about – apples were once used in so many more ways, and each variety had a purpose.”

Nabhan reminds us that “in spring, farmers would ‘drink’ their apples. If we go back into early Americana, the average American male was drinking 50 gallons of hard cider a year. It was a food that we consumed as much by drinking as by eating. Apples were on American tables every day, as a sauce, beverage or even a fritter.”

Nabhan’s point is that apples are not just for fresh eating – if we are going to remember the abundance of apple varieties, we also need to document the abundant ways to enjoy them. Apple cider, apple jack, apple leather, apple ‘shrub,’ applesauce, apple jelly, caramel apples and dried apple rings, to start.

But fruit varieties and their uses are quickly being forgotten. “The trouble is a lot of the antique apples are now grown by antique people, and we need to be sure a new generation is brought into the fold.”

How will this happen? Nabhan and colleagues understand the importance of ensuring the apple experts pass on their knowledge and expertise to a new generation. They identified farmer training strategies as key to their work during the Forgotten Fruit Summit, and on March 20th hosted a day-long workshop for beginning apple growers. This hands-on workshop featured classroom instruction and a field trip to local abandoned orchards, with instructors Dan Bussey (Wisconsin orchardist and author) and Kanin Routson (University of Arizona).

Nabhan noted the success of this grower workshop. “We had 45 beginning apple growers from around Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan who attended to learn from the fruit experts. It was just as important for the elders who feel like their excitement and passion for apples is being heard and wanted by the next generation.”

Burford, one of these elders, has made a personal commitment to devote his final years of life sharing his knowledge with the next generation.

He says, “propagation itself is the element that defines society. Today, the people who hold power in our society are in technology. In my time, the agriculturalists held the power. We need to understand this, and we need to see a shift… so that agriculturalists and those who care for our land have [greater] representation again. This is why we need to teach people not just where food comes from, but also to empower them to grow it for themselves. Propagation is power. That is why, for me, doing grafting workshops is so important.”

But a cultural shift will not happen with farmers alone. It also requires consumer awareness and action. Ben Watson, author on ciders and chair of the Slow Food-USA Ark of Taste committee, shared his perspective on what happened to apple culture and why it’s worth saving:

“Today, consumers are presented with a very narrow spectrum of fruit varieties (e.g., Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious) and told that this is all that an apple can be. We lack the consumer support that would make it profitable for local orchards to store fruit, grow a wider variety and justify staffing and other expenses to keep the farm operating year-round.

“Until we re-instill apple knowledge in consumers, our orchards will continue to struggle and go out of business.”

Workshop participants concluded the day sharing their vision for the future of the apple in America. Watson offers what a “apple-literate” America might look like –

“We need to increase the number of American consumers who know about good apples – who seek them out and demand them, whether at the grocery store, the farmer’s market or directly from the orchard itself. I’d like to see people seeking out Red Astrachans and Yellow Transparents in late summer for making applesauce and early pies… then moving on to wonderful dessert apples like the balsamic Mother or the floral Opalescent in September… and then, late in the season, looking for long-storing winter apples like Roxbury Russet and Northern Spy.”

“We Americans share a rich apple heritage, and we deserve to sample from the whole palette, which in the end reflect our own diversity and the best of our democratic nature.”

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Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) is a national alliance, managed by Slow Food USA, committed to restoring America’s agricultural biodiversity and developing a public understanding of place-based foods. For the past five years, the RAFT alliance has been bringing food producers, chefs and consumers together to develop and promote conservation strategies, sustainable food production, and awareness of our country’s unique and endangered foods and food traditions. RAFT uses an eater-based approach to conservation –reintroducing the stories and flavors of America’s traditional foods to larger audiences, so people are once again growing and consuming them sustainably. Founding RAFT partners include: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Chefs Collaborative, Cultural Conservancy, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Seed Savers Exchange, Slow Food USA, and Dr. Gary Nabhan.

For more information about the work of RAFT and future workshops, visit: http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/raft/.

A full description of the outcomes from this meeting can be found in the “Forgotten Fruits Manual and Manifesto,” available from Slow Food-USA at http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/raft_detail/publications/.
Some of the core areas of work the participants focused on included:
1. BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOTS: Where are the areas of richest diversity for heirloom, old-time and heritage apple varieties? Where are there gaps in the knowledge?
2. CAUSES OF GENETIC LOSS: What factors are contributing to the decline of apples and apple varieties? What are you currently doing to address and mitigate these factors? What should be done?
3. RESTORATION WORK: What is the single most effective thing that you have done to bring back apples? What collective actions are needed? And what kinds of funding and support organizations should be involved?
4. NEW FARMER TRAINING: If you were to ask the younger people of America to take on one part of your work and legacy, what would it be?