- THEM APPLES Apple trees like this Golden Delicious typically drop a certain amount of fruit, but last month’s heat wave caused an unprecedented amount to fall before harvest.
While the 2017 grape crop seems to have survived the withering heat waves of summer, Sonoma County apples did not fare so well.
"It was incredible," says Stan Devoto, who has been growing apples in West County for 42 years. "I've never seen anything like it."
Heat stressed the fruit and caused trees to dump their fruit en masse. Early-season Gravensteins avoided the heat damage, but midseason varietals, like Jonathans and Jonagolds, ended up in the dirt, where they were destined for juice or cider—or left to rot on the ground.
"It's the tree's way of saying, 'I'm tired,'" Devoto says.
The price for Grade A apples is already low—about $500 per ton—but apples destined for juice, vinegar or sauce fetch just pennies a pound.
Late-season apples still hanging from trees, like Arkansas Black, Golden Delicious, Rome and Pink Lady varietals, may turn out to be OK, Devoto says.
Apple farmer Dave Hale, whose family has been growing the fruit since 1860, estimates he lost as much as 30 percent of his crop this year. One hundred and twelve degree temperatures and apples don't mix, he says.
"When you have record temperatures, you have record losses," Hale says.
The heat damage comes atop bigger challenges for local apple growers. Low wholesale prices coupled with labor shortages make the apple business, once a mainstay of West County agriculture, a difficult one. There used to be about 14,000 acres of apples in West County. Now it's down to about 2,100 acres, as farmers sell their land or convert to grapes.
"Grapes and cannabis are the only crops that have kept pace with inflation," says Devoto.
To adapt, Hale has downsized from 90 acres of apples to 20. He abandoned the wholesale-commodity market because of the poor prices paid by processors in favor of direct-to-market sales—farmers markets and his farm stand on the Gravenstein Highway across from Andy's Market— to keep him afloat. He's also added pumpkins to his crop mix.
"It's real people who support the farm," says Hale.
The other challenge vexing apple growers is labor—or the lack thereof.
"Workers were never a challenge in the West County," says Devoto. "There used to be carloads. Now there is nobody." He has a crew of long-term workers who range in age from 58 to 76.
"That's old," he says, and because of tighter border security and an improving Mexican economy, there isn't a new generation of workers to replace them.
The one bright spot in West County apples is cider. The growth of this Sonoma County industry means some cideries are willing to pay more for fruit than Manzana, the county's sole apple processor.
Devoto says he gets a good price for his apples from his daughter's cider companies, Devoto Orchards Cider and Golden State Cider. He'd like to see more cider houses support local agriculture and pay more.
"I'm hoping the cideries step up to the plate."