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All About the Amazing Apple

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If fruits could talk, none would tell the story of moody mankind better. Dive into the fascinating history of the apple and discover insight on local growers and their orchards.

Pat Curran is a self-taught apple grower and owner of Curran's Orchard.

Pat Curran is a self-taught apple grower and owner of Curran’s Orchard.

Just think what the apple has endured from us over the centuries.

We’ve demonized and worshipped it. Improved it and degraded it. Lugged it across continents and oceans, re-spinning its DNA thousands of ways. We’ve cherished its simplicity, cursed its complexity and made it a symbol of pretty much everything. Temptation, danger, and death; goodness, safety and health; wisdom, beauty and seduction; purity, poetry and patriotism.

The apple plays a starring role in lush myths, wise proverbs, great works of art, culinary masterpieces and frontiers ancient and brand new.
Settlers relied on it for homemade hooch.

Steve Jobs named his beloved company for the apple because it “sounded fun, spirited and not intimidating.”

Gwyneth Paltrow named her beloved daughter “Apple” because … well, Hollywood moms get away with naming babies after fruit.

An apple falling on his head inspired Isaac Newton to consider gravity … maybe.

William Tell was forced to place an apple on his son’s head and split it in two with bow and arrow – or so the folklore goes.

The Mythic Apple

Folklore, mythology and fairytales overflow with apples. Norse gods found perpetual youth in them; Greek gods sparked the Trojan War over one; The Celts found divine passport to Otherworld in the silver branch of an apple tree. King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, was forged in “Avalon,” the Isle of Apple Trees, and a witch poisoned Snow White with an apple that, like the sly supermarket Red Delicious, led to grave disappointment.

No other narrative besmirches the apple as unfairly as the Garden of Eden narrative, however. Unfairly, because no mention of “apple” is made in the Hebrew texts of Genesis, although it appears later in the Old Testament. Perhaps Western artists are to blame for associating the apple with Eden, since they filled church walls with artwork for illiterate populations to “read” and needed a recognizable fruit to depict. God specifically told Adam and Eve they could eat of every tree’s fruit that had seeds in it (Genesis 1:29) and we sure do know that apples have seeds.

Historic symbolism aside, our modern relationship with the apple is also conflicted. At this very moment, supermarket apples are rotting in lunch bags, backpacks and crisper drawers around the world. At the same time, we’re rushing to local orchards to shell out big bucks for all things apple.
Perhaps that’s because there are apples and there are apples, and we’ve come to know the difference.

Apples on the Move

Botanical historians think wild apple trees were native to the Middle East and were likely transported by Romans to Britain around 1066, during the Norman Conquest. The wild trees produced smallish, sour fruit. Skilled cultivators coaxed them to produce larger, sweeter fruit. Domestic orchards then spread throughout Europe and beyond.

When the Europeans came to the New World, they brought apple seeds and saplings with them, some recorded in ship logs as early as the 1630s. Over time, orchards were planted in all 50 U.S. states. Today, Washington, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania are the top producers.

The term “American as motherhood and apple pie” is curious, since neither apples nor pie (nor motherhood) are native to or were invented in America. But the phrase has come to mean something like “wholesome values all Americans agree upon,” which is rare fruit indeed.

Saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. Just as human children can be wildly different from their parents and siblings, planting an apple seed probably won’t produce a fruit similar to its parent – or even produce a good fruit. Most apple trees are propagated through grafting, not seed planting, for this reason.

John Chapman

But if grafting is against your religion, you plant seeds. Such was the case for John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman.

We can thank Chapman for introducing countless apple orchards to Illinois and other parts of the Old Northwest Territory, eventhough most of those apples were good only for making hard cider.

Known for his kindness to people and animals – he was a vegetarian who often paid people to care for abandoned horses he found – Chapman also was a savvy businessman.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, “Speculators and private companies were buying up huge swathes of land in the Northwest Territory, waiting for settlers to arrive. Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made a deal with potential settlers: anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years, since an average apple tree took roughly 10 years to bear fruit.”

Chapman did the hard work of planting the orchards and turned them around for profit to new frontiersmen. He didn’t just scatter seeds randomly, as myth holds; he planted intentionally, nurtured and his pruned his trees and even built fences around them.

It was his dedication to the Swedenborgian Church sect of Christianity that forbade him from grafting apples, which would have made for better trees. Even so, his lifelong effort gave frontier nurserymen loads of stock to improve upon – and provided the best source for making alcohol that the frontier would see for many decades.

By Any Other Name

Just like its cousin the rose, the apple blossom has five petals, five sepals and five stamens. And, like the modern, scentless rose, the apple has endured some terrible things at the hand of commercial breeders.

In the early 1900s, American growers developed ever-more shelf-stable, tough-skinned, attractive varieties. By 1940, the glamorous Red Delicious captured the public eye like a Hollywood chorus girl; it was unblemished, attractive and uniform in shape, with lipstick-red coloring.

“The only problem is that it tasted like cardboard,” says Pat Curran, owner of Curran’s Orchard near Rockford. “When smaller local orchards began selling apples, people rediscovered how great apples can taste. People also were becoming wary of all the chemicals the big growers use.”

Big growers enjoyed a profitable run with the Red Delicious for nearly 50 years, but failed to listen when consumers tired of tasteless apple. They also underestimated the burgeoning Chinese apple market (now the No. 1 producer – we’re No. 2) and lost nearly $800 million in surplus crops in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton oversaw the biggest apple industry bailout in history and the New York Times quoted one insider saying big growers “had made apples redder and redder and prettier and prettier, and they just about bred themselves out of existence.”

Big growers are slowly turning their ship toward a return to tasty apples. Red Delicious production has declined by 40 percent, but still leads the pack, followed by Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji and Golden Delicious, according to the U.S. Apple Association (USAA).

The list of top apples purchased in the U.S. is different, however. Gala leads the pack, followed by Red Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp.

In all, it’s a $4 billion industry, with another $14 billion in related downstream activity. The U.S. exports about one in every four apples it grows, to Mexico, Canada, India, Taiwan and United Arab Emirates, among other places.

Apples recently overtook oranges as the No. 1 fruit consumed in the U.S., in part because orange juice has fallen out of public favor, reports the USDA. Bananas and grapes are distant runners up.

Patience Required

For small, local growers, planting apples isn’t something you do on a whim. It requires patience and risk tolerance. And you have to love doing it for reasons beyond profit alone.

“It’s a long-term involvement, running an orchard,” says Curran, whose 30-acre Curran’s Orchard is located at 6385 Kilburn Ave., Rockford. “Your investment may not pay off for a long time.”

A self-taught grower, Curran planted his first trees in 1983 and didn’t see a true first harvest until 1989. He began with six varieties and now has 23. He counts them off on his fingers, recalling each like the birthdate of a child.

“… then came Snow Sweet and Cortland and Honeycrisp …”

Like most local orchard owners, Curran started small and sold apples on weekends. His day job was working as an aerospace engineer at Sundstrand Corp.; he also served as elected Ward 2 alderman in Rockford City Council for 30 years.

Curran relinquished both vocations when his orchard matured.

“I grew up in a family with six kids and we had some apple trees and my job was pruning them,” he says. “I liked doing that. When I was in high school, I had two loves: I wanted to be a forester but I also wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I got my Master’s in Aerospace at Rutger’s University and enjoyed that career. Now I have this one, which is a lot like being a forester. I’m fortunate. I got to deal with both of my loves.”

His engineering background has been surprisingly helpful.

“After being an aerospace engineer, you tend to think this career is going to be much easier. It’s not. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of technology involved with growing apples, a lot of details and problem-solving that has to happen, some of it very scientific in nature. It has its own set of problems and benefits.”
It’s also very, very hands-on.

“Growing apples is significantly more work than being a grain farmer,” says Curran. “Everything you do is done by hand – plant, prune, pick, sort, bag, make cider, make donuts. You’re not riding around in an air-conditioned tractor cab trying to keep from falling asleep.”

While customers mostly see him in autumn, he’s busy year-round.

“In December I catch up on the books because things are too crazy for that in the fall. In January I prepare taxes. Then there are a few weeks to relax before we begin pruning, which has to be finished by about April 1. Then I start spraying trees to prevent fungus growth, because fungus is the main culprit with apple trees.

“In May, I’m planting, spraying and mowing. I bring bees in for about seven to 10 days around May 5. (And bees are more expensive than they used to be because of colony collapse disorder.) The summer is a little slower. I spray as needed and pray there’s no hail damage. I also get things ready to open, order gift items, stock shelves and tend to other things we grow here – tart cherries, raspberries, pumpkins.”

Being at the mercy of weather is scary. The extremely cold winter of 2014 caused severe losses to all local apple growers.

“I lost about a third of my trees – about 700,” says Curran. “And you can’t just immediately replant them, because the demand for rootstock is phenomenal. After you place a tree order, they don’t arrive for about three years. I planted 600 trees this year, that I ordered in 2014. And I’ll have to wait another three to five years before the new ones really start to produce.”

But there have been good surprises along the way, too. Curran’s talent at making apple cider, for one. He’s earned 16 awards in the past 15 years, at state and national levels.

“It sure surprised me when I won the very first year I entered,” he says. “The beauty of my cider is that there’s nothing in it but straight juice. I don’t add water, sugar or preservatives. It’s all about using the right combination of apple varieties.”

Another high point is “how much people appreciate that I don’t spray my trees except very minimally,” says Curran.

In his early years, he experimented by cutting back on spray a little more each year, until he found the breaking point.

“It’s nearly impossible to grow apples organically in our region, but I’m a small enough orchard that I can play around. By 1992, I knew I’d cut back too far when only one in 10 bushels of apples was good enough to sell outright. But it worked out OK because that’s the year I learned to make cider and I had plenty of apples for it.”

Curran’s apples are so lightly sprayed that many highly sensitive people, who thought they couldn’t tolerate apples, enjoy his fruit with no problem.

“We’ve seen people really gravitate to our apples because they taste better than anything you can buy in the store and because we don’t spray these babies the way you’re supposed to. That makes me feel good.”

He chuckles.

“That’s my niche, my little contribution to humanity – less chemicals.”

Great Expectations

Unlike self-taught Curran, Rob and Drew Ten Eyck are fifth- and sixth-generation apple growers. Their ancestors began planting the family’s Green County, Wis., property in 1839. It’s located at W968 Hwy. 11 and 81, between Brodhead and Monroe.

Today their 40-acre orchard produces a whopping 50-plus varieties, including heirlooms like Grimes Golden and Arlette, the latter a favorite of Swiss gourmets.

Being born into an apple-growing operation is wonderful, but not without pressure. Each generation faces new challenges as market demands and growing practices shift.

Drew’s grandpa didn’t have to maintain a website, for example, much less cater to families concerned about pesticides.

Drew earned a biology degree at UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse and spent a few years working in Wyoming and Alaska, before returning home to run the family business.

He’s in tune with the changing expectations people have for local orchards like Ten Eyck. He also knows that people have a more affectionate relationship with apples than most produce.

“Our customers include three generations of regulars who love coming here together as part of their family traditions and memories,” says Drew. “That’s very special.”
But customers also have higher expectations for apple quality than ever before.

“There’s no doubt that the ‘grow local’ food movement has helped to increase interest in local orchards,” says Drew. “Younger families are more interested in locally grown food produced with minimal chemicals. They buy less, but they want higher quality. They feel that produce sold in grocery stores is, in many ways, no longer wholesome.”

Rob has always impressed upon Drew to “pay attention to quality above everything else,” which serves the business well. Growing the best apples, not the most, is No. 1 priority. But the Ten Eycks don’t slack on quantity or variety, either. Tracking 50 kinds of apples, each with specific needs and harvest times, is complex. They sell all their fruit from the family barn or at farmers’ markets in the Madison area.

Along with market demands, growing practices have changed, too. Rob and Drew have shifted to a trellis-form strategy that exposes trees to more light and better air circulation. Think of grape arbors, but taller. Limbs are tethered to support structures to widen and flatten the tree’s shape.

“This minimizes the amount of dark space that’s on the inside of a tree,” Drew explains. “We plant dwarf trees with rootstock grafted on top. They get about 12 feet high. The trellis makes the tree more efficient. Better light and air circulation discourages pests and fungus.” And this helps the Ten Eycks to use less spray. They also taper off spraying as harvest nears, giving the chemicals time to degrade. They know people don’t want chemicals on their apples, but a minimal amount is just necessary for success.

Drew’s favorite apple?

“I like the McCoun, which is a parent to the Honeycrisp and a cross between the Macintosh and Jersey Black,” he says. “It’s sweet and crispy and makes an outstanding baking apple.”

Apple topics are nearly endless. For example:

Does one rotten apple really spoil the barrel? Yes. It produces the ripening agent ethylene.

Why did kids give apples to their teachers? Bribery, plain and simple.

Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? Well, the list of apple health benefits is long and well-documented, from providing very good antioxidents to reducing cholesterol levels.

Especially in autumn, apples are the fruit most likely to make us smile. And in a factory-farm world, we’re fortunate that local, small growers are still willing to face down the many challenges involved with growing the ancient – and quite amazing – apple.

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