Zea Sonnabend—a longtime organic inspector for CCOF in Santa Cruz and member of the National Organics Standards Board—lives just outside Watsonville. As she drove back and forth to work over the last three decades, she passed an ever-dwindling number of apple orchards.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when she inherited a small amount of money, the first thing she did was buy a 10-acre orchard. “Watsonville has a long history of apples and it’s dying and seemed worth preserving,” she says.
While saving a traditional local product drove her initial purchase, she says craziness is what keeps her going. “It just feels like what I was meant to do.”
The certified organic orchard, in the Corralitos area, is now called Fruitilicious Farm and includes established Gravenstein, Gala, Red Delicious, Jonagold, Empire and Pippin trees. Although she has a farming background, Sonnabend says she’s learned a lot from the “old timers” and managed to save money by buying up used equipment from apple farmers who were going out of business.
“It all started with one golden yellow apple seedling called a pip,” she explains. “at ended up being known as the Newtown Pippin, which were the first apples to be planted in Watsonville in the 1850s.”
The Newtown Pippin was a tremendous discovery due to its balanced tart to sweet ratio and a pine-like aroma, which made it excellent for eating fresh, baking into pies and pressing into fresh and fermented cider. The juice from Newtown Pippins is still the basis of Martinelli’s apple cider and has been since the 1880s.
Sonnabend and her business partner Terence Welch also tend a six-year-old heirloom apple orchard nearby, where they’ve planted 100 varieties and are waiting patiently to find out how they will produce in the Watsonville area.
Eighty varieties were chosen either because they were trees already existing in California or are culturally significant or have resistance to diseases like apple scab, which are hard for organic growers to control. Twenty trees are exclusively cider apples from abroad and she doesn’t know how they will produce here.
A member of the California Rare Fruit Growers and avid seed saver, Sonnabend made sure to propagate what she considers the three most culturally significant heirloom apples discovered in California: Hauer, Skinner’s Seedling and Sierra Beauty.
The Hauer apple was named after Peter Hauer, who found it growing alongside Pleasant Valley Road in Aptos in 1890. ought to be the lovechild of a cross between a Cox Orange Pippin and a Yellow Bellflower tree, it is squatty and not much to look at, but the flavor is clove-like, spicy and sweet and the flesh white, with thick skin. is late-season “Christmas Apple” as it came to be known, could be stored in straw until spring, but fell out of favor once refrigeration was common.
The Skinner’s Seedling is named after Henry Chapman Skinner, who found it growing in his yard in San Jose. This big yellow/red apple ripens early and is very tart, so it is mainly used for cooking. Its claim to fame is that it needs very little chill time to produce apples, an issue that is coming up now as the climate warms and apple varieties don’t produce as well as they used to in our area.
The best of the California heirlooms in Sonnabend’s opinion is the Sierra Beauty, a firm boxy apple with reddish stripes and a complex herbaceous and floral flavor, that originated near Chico in the late 1800s and stores incredibly well. Locally it is also known as a Winter Gravenstein and was thought to have been extinct until the 1980s, when it was found growing in Mendocino County in an orchard owned by the Gowan family, farmers who still sell their apples at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco.
I take a bite of one of the farm’s Red Delicious apples and am pleasantly surprised how tasty and crisp they are, and how the color is blush red, unlike the solid red ones I grew up avoiding due to their mushy texture. Sonnabend explains hers are also more flavorful because they are grown on standard rootstock (as all apples planted in the 1800s and early 1900s were, instead of the semi- dwarf rootstock that is more common today). Therefore, they have deep roots and a more complex flavor profile. “Trees on standard rootstock are able to pull more nutrients from the soil and organic apples always taste better because they are receiving compost and natural fertility instead of chemicals,” she adds.
Standard trees are a thing of the past, as they grow very tall and there isn’t skilled apple picking labor in the area any longer. Having inexperienced workers up on tall ladders harvesting 50 pound bags of apples is a liability. There is also the fact that workers are less likely to want to work in a standard orchard because the harvest is slower, which means they earn less if they are paid by the pound. Semi-dwarf trees can be picked faster using shorter ladders, however they only live 20 years compared with standard tress, which live as long as a century.
The Pajaro Valley was once at the heart of an apple frenzy. Watsonville was dubbed Apple City and there were one million trees producing on 14,000 acres by 1908.
Newtown Pippin and Bellflower were the shining stars of the orchard and fetched the highest prices. Forty packing houses were built to accommodate the apples, which were shipped out of Moss Landing by boat and through Pajaro, once the train line was completed in the 1870s.
The Apple Annual Association was created in 1909 and attracted tens of thousands of people for a weeklong event called e Apple Show Where Apples Grow. The event was much like a circus, with the focus on apples— under the tents were the latest orchard implements, machinery and inventions, displays of wooden apple harvest bins and the latest and greatest crop production tools. Vaudeville acts performed and participants took part in apple crate making, apple packing and pie eating competitions. The streets were jammed with people and the weeklong event ended with a Mardi Gras-style party, fueled by hard cider and celebration.
Over time, Pajaro Valley apples lost their value as miles of orchards were planted throughout the Pacific Northwest and much of the local landscape has been replanted with more lucrative strawberries and raspberries.
Longtime apple growers like the Prevedelli and Gizdich families have managed to stay in business through the apple decline by finding their own niches. In the 1980s, the Prevedellis began farming organically and selling at local farmers’ markets as a way to make a living from their 80-acre farm in Corralitos, where 35 varieties of apples are grown. Eventually, the family also diversified into berries and row crops such as squash and green beans. Now three generations take part in a dozen farmers’ markets, led by Silvia, the family matriarch and Santa Cruz County farmer of the year in 2016. The Gizdich apple orchards stay in business through a type of agritourism, by hosting u-picks and baking their famous pies.
Others have opted to take advantage of the public’s growing thirst for hard cider. Jake Mann’s great grandfather was one of those farmers who came from Missouri in the 1870s and settled into the apple growing rhythm of Watsonville. Hundreds of acres of apple orchards are still managed today by the Mann family and most fruit is still sold to Martinelli’s for juice.
As a fourth-generation farmer, Mann says there is a lot to learn from his father and he’s still absorbing the knowledge of his ancestors, but he’s also adding his own twist.
While thinning fruit on a Kingston Black cider apple tree, he gave me the lowdown on the history of the farm, explaining how the original Bellflower apples were pruned to form arches so horse-drawn carts could be pulled through the trees without bruising the apples.
Now he is experimenting with “top working” existing Red Delicious trees and grafting on cider varieties like Black Twig instead. “I taught myself how to make cider in order to understand how the apples react during fermentation. at way I can manipulate certain factors for the desired characteristics of hard cider. Hard cider makers are requesting the apples be dry farmed and grown organically, or harvested at certain brix (sugar) content,” he says.
He believes ciders are a noble use of apples. Collecting the fruit, crushing it and tasting the memories is one of his favorite pastimes, along with the weekly apple pies his mom makes during harvest.
FARM TO BOTTLE
When Rich and Laura Everett bought their Soquel farm in 2000, it came with established Pippin and Gravenstein apples that were historically sent to Martinelli’s. The Everetts started out selling them for juice, but eventually made their own non-alcoholic cider to sell at their farm stand instead.
Four years ago, Laura—who comes from a winemaking family in Napa—decided to try making hard cider. She planted with a plan; her kids would be off to college by the time the apples started to produce and she would have time for a new project. Laura’s energy and passion are off the charts and the cider she makes showcases that drive.
Husband and wife are particular about how they grow their apples, so particular in fact that they have their own separate orchards that they manage completely differently. Rich grows apples he likes for fresh eating like Honey Crisps, which require significant irrigation. He lets the grasses grow tall between the orchard rows and prunes so that the sun hits all of the apples and they can grow big and juicy.
Laura’s cider apple orchard is dry farmed, tidy and the trees are pruned with a central leader—the more natural way apples grow. Since size doesn’t matter for cider apples, there is little need to thin. Laura’s entire orchard consists of heirloom varieties such as Roxbury Russet, Belle de Boskoop, Yarlington Mill and more.
She dug deep into her memory of college organic chemistry and pored over books to learn as much as she could about the bitter sharps and bittersweet cider profiles. She worked with David Hartzell—friend and home brewer extraordinaire—to come up with some cider she liked, reminiscent of the English style: dry, crisp and not sweet.
Four seasons later, Laura has three ciders available under her Soquel Cider label. The flagship cider is pure Gravensteins; Laura’s Orchard contains a blend of heirloom cider apples only. My favorite of the three is the Barrel Aged, a still cider blend, aged in rye whiskey barrels, that has a depth of flavor and hint of whiskey—which Laura says is best with cheese plates.
Laura is experimenting with capturing the local, wild yeast that grows on the apples in the orchard and has also played around with blends, including farm-grown Greengage plums and Hachiya persimmons in different batches to create spring and fall seasonal ciders. When the tanks can’t hold all the juice that is pressed, she makes apple cider vinegar and plans to offer it in the near future. Everett Farm is the true farm-to-bottle cider maker. “I’m the fermenter, the bottler, the labeler and the marketer!” she says with a laugh. And in tasting the final product, her hard work and dedication show.
As the planet continues to warm and drought and floods become more common, climate will ultimately dictate the crops that can be grown in the Pajaro Valley and elsewhere in the Monterey Bay region. But for now—with the help of these growers and cider makers—local apples have won a reprieve. We hope they will continue to grow and flourish through the years.