As American As Apple Pie
by Rene Pastor
It is one of the oldest symbols of Americana—the apple, apple pie, Johnny Appleseed. And though the United States may no longer be the biggest apple grower in the world—our production has been surpassed by China's—the fruit remains an icon of American life and a vibrant export for fruit farmers.
Apples have grown in popularity as a staple health food for people all over the world. Washington State is the biggest producer—claiming nearly 70 percent of the market, with New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia trailing far behind, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Apples are an inexpensive healthy fruit that can be enjoyed many ways," Mac Riggan of Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, Washington, told The Hand That Feeds U.S. in an interview.
According to the U.S. Apple Association, Washington State grows nearly two-thirds of the total U.S. apple crop on more than 175,000 acres and exports apples to 60 countries. The state has been growing apples for over 75 years and has 1,720 growers that help make the industry a success.
Washington harvests more than 100 million boxes of apples each year. The top nine apple varieties grown in Washington include Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink, Braeburn and Cameo.
For Peter Verbrugge, the president of Sage Fruit in the Yakima Valley, the apple business is not a sentimental one, but an exciting and rewarding venture.
"I'm a third generation apple grower and owner in the Yakima Valley. My grandfather and his brother had the opportunity to purchase land in Yakima during the depression. They bought two 40-acre parcels that had been foreclosed by banks. We still own those two 40-acre parcels and have grown to farm 2,000 acres of tree fruit including 1,675 acres of apples, 250 of pear and 75 acres of cherries," Verbrugge said.
"Agriculture is a business and I run it as such. I enjoy it because it is very dynamic…like a game of high stakes poker with risks and rewards," he said.
Rebecca Lyons, who follows trade issues at the Washington Apple Commission, said in a separate interview that the symbolism is understandable.
"Certainly apples play a major role in American culture, as they are symbolic of the bountiful harvest that our land provides. Most school kids know the story of 'Johnny Appleseed' who was responsible for spreading the cultivation of apple trees beyond the East Coast into the Midwest," she said. "And of course, apples have been used to signify 'Americanness'—as in 'As American as apple pie', or a famous car jingle 'Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and…'"
And since not everyone in the 18th century could go to a bar for a drink, Lyons said that "in frontier days, an apple tree could be relied on to provide not only fresh fruit that could be stored well into late winter, but hard apple cider that was safe to drink in the days when safe water supplies were not always available."
On top of that, exporting apples has also become a good business for its farmers.
"The top two markets are Mexico and Canada (in that order), which makes sense as they are our neighbors," said Lyons. "They are fairly stable markets, although we see some growth in Mexico occurring as modern retailers there expand into regional areas and enable better cold chain and distribution practices."
The mild surprise is provided by India, which is now the third largest market for Washington's apples.
Lyons said India "has been experiencing phenomenal growth over the past 13 years, going from 19,141 42-lb cartons in 1999 to over 4 million cartons during the 2011/12 season."
She said the largest variety of apple grown in Washington is still "the iconic Red Delicious" but that consumers now enjoy a wide variety of the fruit.
This would include "the sweet, juicy Fuji, the tart, green Granny Smith and a relative newcomer that is proving very popular, Honeycrisp."
The Red Delicious is very popular in China because the color is considered lucky. In parts of Southeast Asia, the "tart taste of Granny Smith has earned them a reputation as a 'diet' apple and that variety is very popular for juicing," she added.
"Color and size do matter, with some markets preferring larger size apples while others small—this is particularly true in foreign markets, where street vendors can be a primary sales point and rely on consistent sizing as a sales tool."
Verbrugge said each apple he grows "represents a great deal of monetary investment along with many hours of work from dedicated people in the orchard all the way to the consumer."
He enjoys the business because of the opportunities to "meet other people in other cultures all over the world. I have developed partnerships with family owned ag companies in the U.S. and also New Zealand and Chile."
The most pressing issue facing apple farmers would be the lack of laborers during the harvest who would help pick the crop.
"Labor to harvest the crop is increasingly becoming a challenge," Riggan said.
Verbrugge added, "Our most immediate threat is labor and the lack of political will to solve the problem. We are very dependent upon high volumes of labor over short time frames at harvest."
At one point, a local newspaper said one farmer hired prisoners to pick the crop. With no sign of a guest worker program being put in place, apple growers are not confident that a solution to the annual problem of pickers will be found any time soon.
"Since Anglos in the U.S. don't want to do that work, then the U.S. government better figure out a workable solution to legally import labor or I will position my company to be able to grow in (a) country that will," said Verbrugge.
While he may not be overly sentimental, Verbrugge said a lot of pride goes into growing the apple that makes it to the grocery store.
"We love providing a great tasting, healthy product to our customers while providing jobs and support to our local community and being good long-term stewards of the land," he said, adding though that U.S. farmers making a living in agriculture are acutely aware that farming is now "closely tied to weather, events and markets across the world so it is very important to have a global perspective."