By Dennis Linden
This month the apple section is an explosion of bright colors stretching the length of an isle like a brightly painted circus train!
For fresh Apple fans November is the most favorite time of the new season. Both fruit quality and flavor is at its peak, plus the widest selection of varieties are available at this time of the year. In Washington State the largest apple harvest in the world has just finished up with the popular Fuji Apple always being the last picked in late October, accounting for the variety’s reputation for having an extra-sweet flavor. By early November retail apple display space has expanded from feet to yards in order to accommodate this annual bounty of variety and the consumer demand that matches. Take notice the next time you are cruising your own local produce department this month; the apple section is an explosion of bright colors stretching the length of an aisle like a brightly painted circus train! The American consumer eats 20 lbs. of apples a year and the fruit has been a favorite around the world since Adam took that first infamous bite.
While there are pockets of large apple productions at northern latitudes across this country, particularly in Michigan and upstate New York, the vast majority of apples grown for consumption in this country and the world, for that matter, are produced in Washington State. Last season, Washington growers produced a record 129 million bushels of fruit (48 lbs = 1 bushel). Those other two states mentioned combined for only 30 million bushels, a little better than 20% of Washington’s crop. This is really not surprising considering that the perfect growing conditions of the Pacific Northwest have taken some 16 million years to cultivate!
In a geological nutshell, it all started with some 200 separate lava flows that layered the region with volcanic materials for about 10-million years of eruptions. Then all those layers of lava were repeatedly crushed into a volcanic ash pumice by glaciers for another 6 million years of ice ages. Those many ice periods also helped to form a vast lake of ice melt behind a massive glacial dam; the lake covered most of what is now Montana for several more centuries. Geologic evidence shows that beginning about 15,000 years ago this ice dam would periodically rupture, sending huge amounts of water along the path of least resistance, which was roughly southwest and downhill, through Washington and northern Oregon. Scientists have identified 25 separate flood events that each took an average of 55 years to flood this same area and for the ice dam to slowly freeze up again. These flood periods dispersed the 10,000 million years of accumulated volcanic ash as the waters cut a 1,243 mile drainage ditch, a.k.a. the Columbia River, which ran north-to-south through Washington and then turned west through Oregon, eventually pouring into the sea. A strip of rich soil settled along the shores of the Columbia River and that river’s many tributaries, as well as forming Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. Seen from the air today, this strip is almost completely covered with orchards. More precisely, there are a little better than 175,000 acres of apple orchards in the region that come to make apples a $1.5 billion annual industry for the area.
For several years during my produce career I represented the organic apple production of one of the largest apple cooperatives in Washington State. In that capacity it was necessary to act as tour guide to customers from around the country visiting the region for the first time. All were amazed to discover that their expectations of apple orchards being located in relatively flat, pastoral countryside were replaced by the reality of the semi-arid, rugged terrain of Eastern Washington’s Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Gorge.
Apples first found their way to Washington State in 1826 on a Hudson's Bay Company sailing vessel. The captain of the ship, George Simpson, was given the seeds of a "good luck" apple on the eve of his departure from the company’s London office. In that year, the company merged with its biggest competitor, the Northwest Company, and corporate headquarters were set up in Fort Vancouver, WA, where Simpson is thought to have planted his apple seeds in 1827. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The first settlers in the region brought saplings with them from the east, no doubt agricultural offspring of that early real estate developer, Johnny Appleseed! It soon became obvious that the area’s rich lava-ash soil, plentiful water supply and sunshine created perfect conditions for growing apples. The arid climate also meant fewer insect and disease problems, which resulted a cosmetically superior looking apple than many eastern crops. Noting the health and vigor of apple trees planted along stream banks, pioneers developed irrigation systems and by 1889, commercial orchards were prevalent enough to impact the economy of the Northwest.
Washington has several main production areas. The Yakima Valley is the largest of these, in the most southern district. The area produces the highest quality Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties. The Okanogan region in the northern part of the state ensures plenty of late-season Fujis. Unique to this particular variety is the accumulation of liquid sugar, known as the "sugar core", which gives more flavor to Washington Fujis over those grown in other parts of the country. The North’s shorter growing days and cool temperatures produce a more intense and deeper color to apple skin than the southern part of the state. A good example of this color is found in the Lake Chelan district, also in north central Washington, which produces the deepest red in the classic Red Delicious variety. A little further south of Chelan is the Wenatchee Valley, known for Golden Delicious, along with the very popular Gala. On the west side of the state, the Skagit Valley and some of the state’s coastal island community is where some of the oldest orchards in the region can be found. Though it is the smallest of Washington's growing regions, the higher rainfall and cool, temperate marine climate still produce heirloom Gravenstein and Jonagold varieties as well as the Delicious, the early ancestor of the popular “red” and “gold” branches of that family.
Today, the view from almost anywhere along the 1200 miles of the Columbia River’s mostly rugged shoreline includes the same components with only slight variations in terrain. There will be at least an orchard of apples, if not several, within direct line of sight and sometimes for as far as one can see up or down that river. Above these orderly rows of cultivated fruit trees, loom sheer cliffs of rock face whose clearly defined layer have recorded thousands of seasons of thousands of centuries, like tree rings. It’s the very best time of the year to experience the unique snap of biting into a crisp and juicy fresh-picked apple…that took only 16 million years to grow. Enjoy!