As he walks through the rows of his apple orchard in the hills west of Sevastopol, Stan Devoto can’t help but pick fruit from the branch. Thinning will allow the remaining fruits to flourish better in a year now classified locally as exceptional drought.
Apples should be spaced 4-8 inches apart on the branch so that they can grow into flavorful varieties such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, and more bitter ones that are used in hard cider. Over 100 different types of apples are harvested from Devoto’s 25-acre orchard. Due to the drought, apples will be smaller when harvest begins in late July, meaning overall harvest tonnage will be down in the county this year.
“We’re moving further away this year and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Devoto, who has farmed since 1976. It was just before the last time there was such an extreme drought in the area.
“We got through (the drought of the 1970s). But it’s so dry here that the weeds don’t even grow. It’s really crazy, ”Devoto said.
Even under difficult circumstances, apples are one of the best drought tolerant crops in the county along with the olive trees whose fruits are used to make olive oil, Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith said. .
“Standard apple trees have a much larger root system and they penetrate much more into the soil profile. They are able to find available soil moisture to use for growth, ”Smith said.
Culture has some advantages over others with climate change. Most of the county’s apple orchards are dry-grown, which means they only depend on winter rainwater to get through them until harvest. This contrasts with wineries across the county which rely much more on drip irrigation, although winemakers note that they are very selective in their water application because stressed grapes result in a tastier wine. Apples are also not sensitive to the taste of the smoke, which devastated the wine grape harvest last year, causing an estimated 50% loss in value of around $ 300 million.
“Drought has a way of pushing people towards greater water resilience and more drought-resilient cropping systems. Maybe this drought signals a return to standard apple production as an orchard system… because of its ecology, ”Smith said.
This would be good news for the Sonoma County area, which has continued to persist even though it is well past its glory days as the premier culture. The apple industry – mostly in West County – originated in the late 1800s when botanist Luther Burbank persuaded a breeder in Sevastopol to plant Gravenstein apples. The tangy, crunchy fruits quickly became a popular favorite with locals. Popularity has also led to the Gravenstein Apple Fair, which takes place every summer at Ragle Ranch Regional Park. After the fair was canceled last year due to COVID-19, the event will return on August 14 as a small-scale benefit concert to raise funds for the full event next year. .
The area grew over the years and reached its peak in 1940 with nearly 14,000 acres of apple orchards that had been planted in the county. This activity in turn created related jobs at processing facilities such as Barlow Co., which was an applesauce cannery in downtown Sevastopol. This plant closed years later and was transformed into The Barlow retail center which opened in 2013. With the decline in production, only one processing plant remains in the area. area to Manzana Products Co. in Graton, which has been in business since 1922 and manufactures juice, vinegar and applesauce in its aging plant.
The apple industry in the western United States eventually migrated to Washington State and parts of Oregon, where these crops are produced more like industrial agriculture with cluster rows and the irrigation. “In Sonoma County, we don’t have enough irrigated water to make cultivation competitive with other areas,” said Paul Vossen, an agricultural consultant who previously worked for UC Cooperative Extension.
Agriculture, on the contrary, is known for its constant change. The county was once a stronghold of hops, pears and oranges which, over time, were slowly replaced by the most recent and profitable crop: wine grapes. For comparison, in 2019, wine grapes were valued at $ 654 million, while the closest agricultural industry was milk production at $ 127 million. Apples grossed around $ 4 million and Gravenstein’s value was $ 1.3 million.
The disparity can be seen firsthand on the ground – such as a drive west along Route 116 out of Sevastopol – as orchards over the years have been replaced by vineyards. The county had nearly 63,000 acres of vineyards in 2019 and about 2,100 acres of apple orchards.