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FoodPaths - August, 2012
Riding with the Artisan Apple King
Stan Devoto, Devoto Gardens, Sebastopol, CA.

Stan DevotoIt’s 4:33 a.m., the sun is far from rising, and I’m sitting in Stan Devoto’s driveway waiting for him to appear. I have spent weeks interviewing multiple members of the Devoto family, diversified growers of certified organic heirloom apples, specialty cut flowers, and pinot noir grapes, but I have yet to buttonhole Stan, patriarch of Devoto Gardens and Orchards.

Stan, generally referred to as “The King of Artisan Apples,” is known for cultivating new artisanal apple varieties much like tomato growers have done with heirlooms. The family currently grows over 50 varieties of heirloom apples in an orchard of 2700 trees. An additional 27 varieties from the East Coast, France, and the United Kingdom, are expected to be ready for harvest in three to four years.

This is a man on a mission. Who else would meet an English apple grower on a trekking holiday while climbing Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, engage in collegial conversation in his never-ending quest to find the best tasting apple in the world – Egremont Russet, both growers agreed -- return home, find a nursery with a dwarf rootstock and specific scion wood (cuttings to be grafted onto the rootstock that would allow the varietal to flourish in local conditions), and begin to grow that very breed likely to reach consumers in three to four years? Despite the knowledge that the Egremont Russet is low yielding and disease prone!

The front door bursts open and a wiry man of elfin energy bounds down the stairs. I open my car door; he flinches instinctively at the sound in the dark.

“Surprised to see me?”

“…actually, yes. It’s pretty early. Climb in… let’s get on the road.”

I’m the ride-along; I am Riding with the King. Captive in the cab of his van, for the next three hours as Stan drives from store to store making deliveries of the farm’s magnificent sunflowers, we talk apples, flowers, winegrapes, the joys and challenges of being a farmer in today’s food and agricultural environment, his family’s new cider venture, and the future of the next generation of farmers.

* * *

The story of how Stan and Susan Devoto started their family farm 40 years ago is well-documented. A young couple, both from El Cerrito, CA. just north of Berkeley, meet through her brother.  He, educated in the state’s junior college system, is a carpenter; she, with a degree from Berkeley, works in the tax department of Wells Fargo in San Francisco. They travel to Mexico in a Volkswagen bus. Finding their way back up the Pacific Coast Highway, Stan and Susan land in foggy Sebastopol near the Pacific Ocean and buy a 2.5 acre piece of land in the late 1970’s. The era is one of culinary experimentation marked by nouvelle cuisine where young chefs with little or no classical training serve deconstructed dishes without heavy sauces combining fresh, unique ingredients like cumquats and carrots. Virtually every dish is served over beds of micro greens. Young “back to the land” farmers scramble to supply these delicate greens to the burgeoning Bay Area culinary community. Stan and Susan jump right in and plant micro greens; but they are also living on a piece of land that just happens to have an apple orchard on it.

Stan, with a love of the land, builds a home on the property. He begins to learn the apple business. The land holds West Coast apple varieties including Rome Beauty, Gravenstein, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Jonathon and Pippin. Some are eating apples; most are sent for processing to the local apple plants serving the then expansive Sonoma County apple growing community. As Stan plants new varieties, Susan plants everlasting flowers and row crops wherever she can, including between the rows of apple trees, to subsidize Stan’s “apple habit.” While still working at the bank, she takes a course at the local junior college in “how to make something and sell it.” Her “something” is cut flowers. When a farmer’s market opens across from the college, the couple begins to develop parallel businesses -- apples and flowers. The row crops help to generate cash flow for their new venture. Soon they outgrow their small piece of land and buy 20 acres. Along with the arrival of three daughters, Christina, Cecily and Jolie, the farm begins to flourish.

Soon, the next generation will launch its own venture – artisan sparkling hard apple cider – further expanding the family’s apple heritage.

* * *

As we drive from store to store, Stan hops out of the van, greets the early morning workers washing down the entrances, checks his bills of lading, and personally places the buckets of sunflowers in the floral departments.

“I’m the boss,” he chuckles. “The sun hasn’t even come up and I’m the one making the deliveries. Our business is DTC – Direct to Consumer. Stores. Farmers Markets. Restaurants. People want a connection with who is growing what they are selling. I’m just a guy trying to make a living. Without that personal connection, I’m just a grower. If I put a face on my product, I’m their grower.”

You learn a lot Riding with the King at Sunrise.

“The last few years have seen a proliferation of neighborhood pocket markets --‘no frills’ markets tucked into parking lots, vacant lots, and schoolyards. It’s great for consumers…different from the ‘Destination Farmer’s Markets.’ ” Stan enthuses. “We do a mix of both. It’s a good thing. Larger markets increase public awareness. Increased awareness encourages communities to create smaller markets to bring fresh food to the neighborhoods. As I farmer, I play a role in helping new consumers experience the real taste of really good produce.”

* * *

“Apples are still largely a commodity,” Stan explained. “Most are grown for processing. We still sell some of our crop to processors. In the early years, the only way for us to differentiate between what we were growing and what mass producers were growing was to create something completely different. Today, most apples on the shelves of retail stores are cheaper, imported, mass varietals.

“Our region once had a thriving apple industry,” Stan continued. “It’s virtually gone, replaced by the proliferation of winegrapes bringing more than 10 times the price per ton than apples. Our foggy climate and acidic soil is perfect for apple growing; it’s also perfect for pinot noir. These conditions allow us to dry farm our apples, and when needed, manage our irrigation efficiently. We diversified early on so that we would not be dependent on just one crop. People are now asking for our apples by name.”

* * *

I asked Stan to tell me about his favorites. He easily ticked off a short list, but not before qualifying his answer: “I love all my apples, like my children.” Daughter Jolie approached and plucked an early Gravenstein from a tree. “I can’t tell the difference by looking at them,” she said, laughing. “I need to taste them, and usually not until they are pretty well filled out. Dad can tell just from the look.”

This is what I learned from father and daughter:

Apples largely fall into two categories, Tart and Sweet. Tart Apples are best used for baking or cooking, with Stan favoring Burgundy, Gravenstein, and Pink Pearl for their crisp texture and bold flavor. Sweet Apples are best for eating. Hawaiian, a cross between Gravenstein and Golden Delicious, bearing a tropical fruit taste, yet juicy, and without acid, and Honey Crisp ranking among the top three. Stan reluctantly admitted Empire as his favorite, a cross between a MacIntosh and Red Delicious. The least favorite? Rhode Island Greens, good for drying and processing, but not much for eating. Jolie stayed with the local Gravenstein, along with Rome Beauty and Burgundy.

How, then, do you know what to buy when so many apples look alike and you have never tasted many of them? Here’s the answer from the experts: 1.) Buy at a farmer’s market. Talk to the farmer. Tell them how the apple will be used. They will guide you. 2.) Ask WHEN the apple was harvested. There is a seasonality to apples and with that seasonality, comes freshness. If your store is selling Gravensteins in late October, take a look at the label of origin. Gravensteins are an early season West Coast apple, harvested only from mid-August to early September. 3.) Consider buying an unfamiliar or unusual variety so that you can taste something new. You may or may not like it, but you will learn how the apple tastes.  4.) Beware that the apple you love today may not be around tomorrow. Many varietals bear fruit in off-years, or suffer pests, weather set-backs, and disease. One taste can tell the story.

* * *

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years,” Stan says, “… and every morning I wake up asking myself what could happen, what will happen and what might happen. Every grower that has a perfect day wakes up the next morning and asks the same questions.”

He may be asking the questions, but, as we return to the farm, driving past rows of apple trees, I am witnessing a man whose eyes never stop moving, monitoring every tree, row, and layer of soil. Stan Devoto is THE micromanager of the orchard. The van stops and starts as he jumps out, checks a tree for one thing or another, and sputters at three new gopher tunnels marking a brand new patch of grass. I would bet that he knows the condition of every tree in every row. We stop and check a row of saplings.

“You have to manage the babies carefully the first few years. Like any babies,” he smiled. “We also work our way through the thinning process by hand so that the trees don’t over-bear. Fewer apples result in more concentrated fruit flavor, allowing the fruit that remain on the tree to fully absorb water through the fog. It’s dry farming at its best.”

“To be an organic farmer is an even greater challenge,” Stan continues. “In nature there is no such thing as a pest. Being organic means understanding biodiversity and working with nature to manage what nature has given us. Fungus. Disease. Mildew. Scab. These are ALL part of the natural environment. There is nothing you can do to prepare for it. We made the decision some time ago that apples are something people eat and that adopting organic practices are important. We received our certification three years ago and have never regretted our decision. We began by building up the soil to strengthen the root structure. Female Codling Moths can overrun a crop by releasing a sex pheromone into the environment that attracts the male. By disrupting the ability of the male moth to follow the trail of the female pheromone, mating will not occur. The males wander around, but never find what they are looking for. We also use a light kaolin clay spray, a new organic tool that coats the apple and forms a physical barrier to mildew, apple scab and aphids. You need to be on your game every day, every hour.”

“It’s not easy to make a living in agriculture,” Stan confessed. “There’s a lot of luck in what we do. Skills are only one small part of the equation.  Apple trees take roughly 8-10 years to be profitable; winegrapes, 5-7 years, annual crops 60-90 days. We always faced one conundrum in our business – how to use the by-product of our apples that were sold for processing, and what we could do with the apples that were not perfect in appearance.”

The family had long considered entering the cider business. After all, they had lots of apples, especially apples with lots of complexities -- Arkansas Black, Wickson, Kingston Black, Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel – yielding the high acids, tannins, and sugar levels, needed to make a high quality hard cider. The Cider Project – Apple Sauced Cider -- didn’t come into clear focus until middle daughter, Jolie, after getting a degree from Cal Poly in agtourism, special event management, and wine, returned to the farm with a man who would become her husband.

* * *

Hunter Wade speaks the same language as the farmer’s daughter. Hailing from a Maryland farm family, he had studied in Spain, spoke Spanish, and discovered a love for the Spanish cider tradition. The couple’s mutual passion for introducing artisan sparkling cider to the world began to take shape as they traveled through Europe, spending months working at biodynamic wineries, cider houses and learning the business from experienced cider elders. “I don’t know why so many people think that cider is sweet and non-alcoholic,” said Jolie. “We are making cider from our own apples, not sweetened apple concentrate. First you sweat the apples, then grind the apples, press the apples, ferment the must, and bottle the cider. It just made sense to use what we grow ourselves to create something wonderful.”

Stan was very clear about the venture: “It’s THEIR venture. They can get the fruit from me, but it’s their opportunity. Many ciders are made from lesser-grade apples. Artisan apple cider is the real thing and this cider will be made from quality apples that have fine cider properties.”

Stan may be very clear about cider as “their venture,” but somehow his “apple habit” surfaced when nearly three dozen ideal cider apple trees were suddenly added to the Devoto orchards.

“Our cider will be the ultimate artisanal product,” said Jolie. “… grown, harvested and made by us. It will be processed at a custom crush facility, sold to restaurants, pubs and direct to consumers, and should be on the market by this fall. By then we may have even more apple trees for our cider.”

* * *

Some people collect stamps or dolls. Stan collects apple trees.

“I love the seasonality of the growth cycle from dormancy and pruning to harvest,” Stan admitted. “But my favorite season every year is when it’s over. That’s when I curl up and take a long nap.”

New mountains to climb, baby apple trees to nurture, new apples to taste. Such are the dreams of the Artisan Apple King, and his own not-so-forbidden fruit.