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Don’t judge an apple by its shine

(Frank Siteman)
By D.C. Denison
December 29, 2010

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Q. You’ve written that apples are “the final frontier of organics.’’ Why?

A. Because you’re involved over such a long period of time. When you plant an apple tree, it’s going to be several years until you pick. And during that time you’re going to face a wide array of pests, diseases, and annoyances like voles and deer. You have to get involved in building orchard health from the get-go.

Q. Apples attract some of the heaviest pesticide use, don’t they?

A. Apples always make the top 10 list of fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide use. And we’ve come to expect blemish-free fruits. An average of 40-60 percent of orchard sprays are directed at imminent pest and disease situations, leaving the other half to create the aesthetics that we demand today. I’m not talking about major defects like worms; both chemical and organic growers handle that well. But we could cut out significant chemistry by recognizing that a naturally grown apple looks totally acceptable.

Q. Do supermarket apples look too shiny and perfect to you?

A. Fruits that look pretty tend to be empty nutritionally, and have less flavor. Now it takes about 12 apples a day to keep the doctor away, so to speak, because we’re getting less and less of the nutrition and the antioxidants that we used to get.

Q. If you had to pick a variety of apple that’s overdue for a comeback . . .

A. The ones I would mention tend to be a little difficult to handle for the supermarket trade. Many outstanding heirlooms are best in certain locations, but were never intended to be grown everywhere. An apple that amazed me this year was the Bethel, first discovered in Bethel, Vt. It had a phenomenal burst of flavor with tree-ripened crispness. A regional apple is not going to take off in the supermarket, but up here in New Hampshire — perfect. My customers are frequently surprised that an apple can taste like a pear, or a pineapple, or have a hint of strawberry. I’d love to see the Roxbury Russet make a comeback. It’s a classic cider apple with a tangy complexity for fresh eating as well.

Q. Do you have anything good to say about a Granny Smith?

A. I used to love the Granny Smith. But that was 20 or 30 years ago, before market forces “improved’’ it from the grower’s perspective. The original apple had a nice, tart bite. But that has been selected out in the breeding because they were looking for a paler shade of green and a more compact growth habit in the tree.

Q. Did Red Delicious apples ever taste good? They taste mealy to me.

A. Oh yes, if we go back to the original Hawkeye discovered in Iowa in the 1880s. But more than 30 mutations later, we have an apple that’s gotten redder and redder, with lots of emphasis on an elongated conic nose, and a more dwarfing tree producing multiple fruiting spurs. If you ate one at an orchard in season, it might well still have its snap. But the ones in a supermarket could be as much as a year old, and they’ve had quite a journey. The modern Red Delicious has the ability to keep looking good, but no one’s thinking about what that costs in terms of flavor. So when you bite into one, you’re often disappointed.

Interview was edited and condensed. D.C. Denison can be reached at dcdenison@globe.com.

WHO
Michael Phillips
WHAT
For more than 20 years, farmers have been gathering at the NOFA Annual Winter Conference, organized by the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. This year the keynote speaker is the organic apple orchardist of Lost Nation Orchard in New Hampshire. He is the author of “The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist.’’
WHERE
The NOFA/Mass. 24th Annual Winter Conference on Jan. 15 at Worcester Technical High School, 1 Skyline Drive, Worcester. 978-355-2853 or www.nofamass.org