Year of Heirloom Apples

12 Mar 2010

With roughly nine out of ten apples varieties historically grown in the U.S. at risk of disappearing completely from the nation’s orchards, the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance has decided to celebrate 2010 as the Year of the Heirloom Apple. As part of their efforts to preserve and promote old and unusual food varieties and breeds across the country, the focus on apples has been driven by the dramatic decline in choice and quality of this fruit on the market – in a country that once grew and ate some 15,000 to 16,000 apple varieties.

RAFT, an initiative of Slow Food USA, is working to compile the first national strategy for saving and restoring heirloom apple varieties. They have proposed that 90 endangered apple varieties are identified in each region to be promoted to orchards, cideries, restaurants and kitchens in order to increase their production.

“Red Delicious comprises 41% of the entire American apple crop, and eleven varieties produce 90% of all apples sold in chain grocery stores,” explains Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of the RAFT Alliance. “Much of the apple juice, puree and sauce consumed in the United States is now produced in other countries…The number of apple varieties considered threatened or endangered has now peaked at 94 percent.” Dr. Nabhan cites the dramatic loss of traditional knowledge about apple cultivation and varietal usage, and the loss of independently owned nurseries as major factors in the decline in available apple diversity.

The Forgotten Fruits Summit was held last year by RAFT to bring twenty heirloom apple experts to discuss reviving the continent’s ‘apple culture’. “There are signs of hope,” says Dr. Nabhan. “Despite the economic downturn, heirloom and antique apple varieties are being successfully marketed at many farmers markets and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects in the U.S. Future market prospects for heirloom apples look good, both among chefs and cider makers.” 

RAFT has also produced a publication – part manifesto and part manual – which details the history, decline, nursery practices and local restoration efforts to bring back the most endangered heirloom apples to orchards, backyards, farmer’s markets, restaurants, and home kitchens across the country.

Click here to download the Forgotten Fruits Manual & Manifesto – Apples, compiled and edited by Gary Paul Nabhan; introduction by Ben Watson.

Managed by Slow Food USA, 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.

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