Here in the Northeast, where centuries-old orchards still dot the countryside, we’re eating some of the best apples grown anywhere in the world.
Apple growers—with astounding fortitude and a tolerance for risk that rivals the most adventurous stock-market gambler — face a dazzling array of challenges, both natural and human-inflicted. Voracious pests love apples as much as we do. Increasing bouts of extreme weather add new risk to the farmer’s oldest worry. Brutal competition pushes mid-size regional sellers out of the market. Our beloved orchards are up against odds that are getting tougher all the time.
As wholesale and retail grocery players merge and centralize, they face relentless pressure to cut prices and put efficiency before all else. Decisions about what to buy, from whom, are made in faraway offices across the country, or the globe. Longstanding buying relationships no longer count. Our region’s orchards lose out.
That explains in part why, even at the peak of local harvest, stores are stocked with apples from far away—Washington, even New Zealand and Chile. A 2002 study found that the Northeast region’s share of apples sold at the Boston Terminal Market declined from 50% in 1980 to 20% by 1995. The percentage continues to drop. Hundreds of orchards disappeared over those same decades, many overtaken by development and sprawl.
Growing The Best Possible Fruit in Our Region
Fruit with nicks and blotches won’t satisfy commercial buyers. Growing perfect fruit using safe and responsible methods takes extra care and effort. Many consumers recognize the organic label, but few know about other, regionally suited approaches. Many fruit growers—including organic—rely on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an approach based on careful monitoring, beneficial insects, and targeted, limited use of lowest-risk treatments.
IPM decisions vary by location, climate, and other conditions, adapting best practices for each situation. Over 93% of US organic apples come from Washington, where the climate and growing conditions are well-suited to national organic standards. Growers in the Northeast face significantly more pest and disease pressure than the drier Northwest. They need other strategies, like IPM, to protect their orchards and the environment. Red Tomato’s Eco Apple program is one example of growers working together to improve orchard practices and educate the public.)
Research to develop new growing practices, combat invasive pests, and protect pollinators is more important than ever, yet public funding for land grant universities that provide that support has been steadily declining.
Eat the Region
The Northeast has thousands of acres of apple trees planted in great-tasting varieties that are disappearing from grocery shelves. Gala apples at $1.99/lb year round mean low prices for shoppers, but it’s often at the expense of regional varieties like McIntosh, Macoun, Empire, JonaGold, and Cortland. Growers respond to market trends. Every year they cut down and replace more acres. Keeping diversity gives orchards more resilience to face the ups and downs of weather and markets. More variety makes the best pies.
Amid a shortage of skilled farm labor, nearly everyone in agriculture is ready and willing to agree on immigration reform that offers dignity and security to agricultural workers. Threats of immigration raids and violence loom over local communities. Paperwork bottlenecks slow the availability of guest workers returning to orchards where they have harvested apples for decades. We depend on these skilled hands, whether they are local, year-round, or seasonal, for our bite of the apple.
With all these challenges, we’re lucky that so many fruit growers love what they do. It’s up to us to make sure there are regional supply chains, region-appropriate growing standards, and regional varieties to help keep them vibrant.
Ask your grocer to stock local apples whenever they’re available. With today’s cold storage, great-tasting Northeast apples can be had nearly year-round. Look for varieties that are quintessentially northeastern: McIntosh, Empire, Cortland, Macoun. Taste a few you’ve never tried— new varieties bred especially for this region, like Snap Dragon or Evercrisp. Get to know your farmer, and look for fruit grown using a range of ecological practices. Pressure Congress to take action, now, toward immigration reform and a guest worker program that provide dignity and security to agricultural workers. Say “thank you” every time you pass an orchard that’s fended off housing developers and competition for one more year.
Apple orchards and the people who tend them are a regional treasure— don’t take that for granted. We all have a role to play to ensure they will be here for generations to come.
Curious to learn more about the US Apple industry? Sue is the author of Good Apples: Behind Every Bite, available for sale direct from Red Tomato!