The Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) alliance is launching a Forgotten Fruits initiative to return America's most endangered heirloom apples to orchards, backyards, farmers' markets, restaurants, home kitchens and cider houses. RAFT has christened the year 2010 as the "Year of the Heirloom Apple" to engage food communities in restoring 90 heirloom apple varieties to each region of the country and to simultaneously renew culinary traditions associated with American apple culture.
Earlier this spring, RAFT launched this initiative in Appalachia — the richest region for heirloom apples on the continent — with events in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The launch includes the internet release of its Forgotten Fruits Manifesto and Manual. This publication builds upon the Collective wisdom and work of more than a dozen of America's elderly heirloom apple experts — a team nicknamed the "Buena Vista Social Club of Forgotten Fruits."
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 through nurseries. Roughly nine out of ten apple varieties historically grown in the U.S. are at risk of falling out of cultivation and falling off our tables.
Over the last century, apple culture and diversity in America have dramatically declined. RAFT partners have been concerned that just one apple variety, the Red Delicious, now comprises 41 percent of the entire American apple crop. Eleven common varieties produce 90 percent of all apples sold in chain grocery stores.
What's more, much of the apple juice, puree and sauces consumed in the United States are now produced in other countries. As the overall number of apple trees in cultivation decline to a fourth of what it was a century ago, the number of apple varieties considered threatened or endangered has peaked at 94 percent. These are not just abstract statistics, for they affect our health and the health of our landscapes.
RAFT has determined a previously-unrecognized catalyst of the decline in the variety of apples available to growers. Over the last 15 years the United States has lost roughly 600 independently owned nurseries. These nurseries formerly harbored most of the place-based heritage apples on the continent, but their business has been usurped by the garden-and-lawn departments of big-box stores which offer far fewer varieties.
Perhaps just as problematic is the dramatic loss of traditional knowledge about apple cultivation and varietal usage that has occurred over the last half century. The skills of grafting, pruning and preparing apples in diverse ways are as endangered as the apples themselves.
The worst may be yet to come. Climate change may be one of several natural and man-made factors that have dramatically reduced the number of chill hours apple-growing areas receive. These weather shifts have led to predictions that within four decades, apple production may be lost from orchard-rich regions like the Central Valley of California and from southern Pennsylvania.
However, there are signs of hope. Despite the economic downturn, heirloom and antique apple varieties are being successfully marketed at many of the 5,000 farmers' markets and 2,500 Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects in the U.S. Some CSAs, like the one of Mortez's Mountain Apples near Boone, North Carolina, specialize in introducing customers to a wide variety of delicious heirlooms. Consumption of hard cider is also on the rise in America, offering a means to use many heirloom varieties not suited for eating fresh. Among chefs and cider-makers, future market prospects for heirloom apples look good.
The Renewing America's Food Traditions Alliance is now proposing that at least 90 endangered apple varieties in each region be earmarked for recovery to our orchards, cideries, restaurants and kitchens.
To find out ways you can celebrate the Year of the Heirloom Apple, go to http://www.raftalliance.org and http://www.garynabhan.com.
RAFT is an alliance of food, farming, environmental and culinary advocates who have joined together to identify, restore and celebrate America's biologically and culturally diverse food traditions through conservation, education, promotion and regional networking. Gary Nabhan is founder of Renewing America's Food Traditions Alliance (http://www.raftalliance.org).
For further information contact:
Gary Nabhan firstname.lastname@example.org, Regina Fitzsimmons email@example.com, Kanin Routson firstname.lastname@example.org, (all at 520 621-5774), or Ben Watson BWatson@chelseagreen.com, John Bunker email@example.com, Tom Burford firstname.lastname@example.org and Dan Bussey email@example.com.Read the full article