The Quest To Save Old Varieties
In America

Heirloom apples are Nature's perfect fruit. They add a historic and meaningful dimension to orchards with a texture, color, flavor and versatility that is unsurpassed.

While resplendent with many virtues, very seldom are heirloom types seen or sold in generic grocery stores. The reasons why are so vast and numerous that it is worth exploring further.

Heirloom (or 'heritage' apples) are neither mass-marketed or grown in large commercial orchards. In fact, they are more likely to be found in small, family owned orchards, or not at all. Approximately 80% of North American varieties are no longer available to consumers.

Dead trees in a fieldCredit: User:jeanniet6 / morgueFile

Disappearing Trees

Food is necessary for human life, and its abundance (or lack thereof) has implications for our future, as a whole. Losing species or varieties of any fruit or vegetable is not something we need to (or should want to) accentuate or get complacent about. Ignorance is not always the bliss we assume it to be, especially when it results in the demise of certain food traditions.

According to a report produced by RAFT Alliance in 2010, heirloom apples are vanishing from the North American continent – not just by one or two, or several hundred, but by the thousands. "Of some 15,000 to 16,000 apple 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." (Nabhan, p. 4)

Damaging Factors

The impact of declining numbers of apple varieties is already having serious effect, with just a dozen cultivars available in American supermarkets. So limited and narrow is the range of commercial apple production that "the Red Delicious apple now constitutes 41 percent of the entire apple crop in the United States. Including Red Delicious, 11 varieties make up 90 percent of all the apples offered in chain grocery stores such as Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s and Wal-Mart." (Nabhan, p. 12) 

As shocking as this may seem, the disappearance of heirloom apples is not something new, nor is it something that can be remedied overnight. There are a host of causes involved, including climate change, genetic engineering, the importation of apple products (ie sauces, puree and juice) from China, loss of expertise related to traditional apple growing (ie grafting, propagating, selecting, and culinary wisdom), and the high risk of diseases.

Commercial pressure from big-box chain stores on independent garden retailers has also had adverse effect. "Today, just a handful of mass merchandisers control the bulk of sales for nearly every kind of nursery stock. Their share of nursery sales has been increasing 4 to 5 percent every five years. At present, a handful of mass merchandisers capture well over a quarter of retail and wholesale revenues from plant sales." (Nabhan, p. 14) There is obviously some way to go before heirloom apples are free to make the comeback they so rightly deserve.

Red apples on a treeCredit: User:mensatic / morgueFile

Apples Returning

One organization that is actively seeking to restore the legacy and tradition of heirloom apples, however, is Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance. Focused on saving endangered apple varieties, the chief aims of RAFT Alliance are to identify, recover and promote regional apple diversity. Already there are signs of success across a number of sectors, with increases in organic apple production, cider manufacture, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, and sales at farmers' markets and roadside stands. 

"Fortunately, the economic prospects for heirloom apples are, in many ways, better than they have been in over a century. While certain varieties well-suited to fresh eating or baking have begun to make a comeback, the growing appreciation for hard cider and apple wines and spirits is making room in the U.S. market for distinctive, tannin-rich, bittersweet and bittersharp apples for the first time in decades, thus extending variety recovery even further." (Nabhan, p. 28)

Ladder leaning against an apple treeCredit: User:mensatic / morgueFile

Heirloom Revival

When it comes to heirloom apples, there is only so much we can lose of our traditions and culture before there is none left at all. "What is threatened is the cultural information garnered over long periods of use by rural communities regarding the care and use of food resources—their histories, myths, songs, recipes and management practices. This cannot be replaced simply by information from horticultural, taxonomic and ecological studies. In order to really conserve a variety, we need to know “the human stories” about that apple, not just the genetic code." (Nabhan, p. 21)

Our history, our humanity, our future rests upon caring for what was, what is and what will be – it is our responsibility. Choosing to cultivate heirloom plants – apples or otherwise – is essential in the culture of food. No matter where a person lives or what country they call home, this is about defining what kind of world we want to live in – the foundation of our humanity. It is up to us to create the world we want – let's get to it!