From Hundreds to a Handful
There used to be a time, say a hundred years or so ago, when every self-respecting orchardist would grow more than a dozen varieties of heirloom apples — some perfect for eating right off the tree, others destined for mixed apple pies and crisps.
In those days — it's been reported — people not only had the time to handpick their fruit and vegetables in season, but they also had the skills to cook them, preserve them or pickle them for later use.
“It’s just an observation, but I don’t see a whole lot of folks today who are really that interested, or have the time, to educate themselves about heirloom (heritage) apples and the amazing varieties that are still available in this province,” says Marian McNally, owner of Cristan Farms in Oakville, which grows 32 varieties. “I guess it’s like so many other things today — people are just too busy to care and they go with what’s readily available.”
An orchardist for 30 years, she says consumers have come to know and rely on the eight or nine varieties of apples they can find in any major grocery store and they have no desire to try anything new.
The Snows, Gravensteins, Russets, Spies, Melbas and Wealthys McNally grows at Cristan Farms remain relatively untouched — a tragedy since each has its own unique taste, colour and sweetness profile.
“I have to be honest, I really don’t like many of the major varieties that are available today,” McNally says. “I’m looking for something that has a distinct flavour, a distinct taste. That’s where heirlooms excel — they are unique.”
She offers a quick lesson.
Snows, which are ready to pick after the first frost, sport a white soft flesh and are excellent choices for eating or cooking and taste exactly like an apple is supposed to taste, according to McNally. The Gravenstein has a very hard golden flesh and, due to its tart taste, is perfect for pies and eating, for those who don’t want a really sweet apple. For cooking, McNally recommends the Transparent — an early golden-fleshed apple that is picked green and is very tart.
“I wish people were more adventurous and more willing to try varieties they’re not acquainted with,” she says. “I think it would be great, but as it is, we can’t give heirloom varieties away at the farm. People just won’t try them.”
There’s a reason for that, according to Daryl Somers, research director, applied genomics, at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre near St. Catharines, Ont. The apple industry spends a lot of time and money taste-testing its product in an effort to deliver exactly what the consumer thinks they want in an apple — a crisp, sweet, juicy fruit with a firm red skin.
“Consumers have a very specific idea of what makes a perfect apple,” Somers says. “And they want to buy that perfect apple at any time of the year.”
Inside that statement are the two main reasons heirloom apples have all but disappeared from public view.
Heirloom varieties, Somers says, are prone to disease and that affects their status as "perfect apples". Additionally, many heirloom varieties don’t store well.
Ontario apples by the numbers
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One Ontario apple = 70 calories
15,800 acres used for apple orchards
$634 million — apple industry’s annual contribution to Ontario economy
6.9 million — average bushels produced in Ontario each year
Top 10 Ontario apples (by percentage of acreage planted): McIntosh, Gala, Empire, Red Delicious,
Northern Spy, Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, Golden Delicious, Ida Red, Cortland
89 per cent of people prefer sweet apples
11 per cent of people prefer tart apples
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Facts and figures courtesy of Ontario Apple Growers
“After taste, the single most important factor in today’s industry is storage,” Somers explains. “You have to produce an apple that has the ability to be stored for a long period of time and it has to be as perfect in January or March as it is in September or October.”
With heavy investments, long lead times and climate change having a dramatic impact, the apple industry in Ontario has been moving more and more toward a traditional corporate business model — in which reutrn on investment is maximized — over the past three or four decades. Orchardists need to make a profit to stay in business and very few have the luxury of growing heirlooms just for the sake of growing heirlooms.
In the opening statement of the 2016 Ontario Apple Growers Association’s annual report, chairman Charles Stevens noted the negative effects of the past few winters on one of Ontario’s best performers — the Gala.
“George Brinkman, an economics professor with the University of Guelph, once lectured that farmers should look at their market and grow the crop to fit it,” Stevens wrote. “Gala makes up 50 per cent of retail sales in Ontario. Our challenge, as growers, is to learn new ways to consistently grow a better Gala to meet this market. It is my intent to push for more research into the chemical thinning and winter hardiness of the Gala apple to meet market demand.”
Clearly, there is a priority to maintain the viability of a market leader — something heirloom varieties are not.
Most orchardists plant two-year-old cuttings that will bear substantial fruit three growing seasons after being planted. With up-front costs estimated between $10,000 and $15,000 an acre, it’s no wonder orchardists are focused on growing the best-selling varieties — McIntosh, Empire, Red Delicious and Honeycrisp.
According to the Ontario Apple Growers, an association that represents Ontario apple growers with 10 or more acres of orchard, the apple industry annually contributes more than $625 million to the Ontario economy and produces almost seven million bushels. McIntosh, Northern Spy and Empire are the dominant varieties, producing two or three times their closest rivals. Honeycrisp, a relative newcomer — it was all the rage at the Royal Agricultural Fair in Toronto in 2007 — has become one of the fastest-growing varieties.
Released in the 1960s, the Honeycrisp — a cross of Macon and Honeygold apples — was first introduced to consumers in the early 1990s. Known to grow well in colder climates, the Honeycrisp has become a boon to orchardists. In Nova Scotia, orchardists call it “The Game Changer.” In 1982, the Honeycrisp didn’t exist in Nova Scotia’s apple business. Today, it’s the second most popular variety, accounting for almost 20 per cent of apple volume produced in that province. In Ontario, the Honeycrisp is sixth.
“The apple business really is just like any other business,” Somers says. “You have to produce a product the public wants and deliver it to them whenever they want it. To that extent you have to approach it from a very corporate point of view and many of the growers are doing that today.”
While McNally emphatically agrees that being an orchardist is a business, you can tell she laments the passing of an era. “A lot of our customers are older folks, folks who remember using whatever was available,” she says. “They have an appreciation for combining sweet and tart and creating different flavours for different purposes.
“I think it’s my place to pass that information down to younger people, so at least they have it, regardless of whether they use it or not.”
494 Winston Churchill Blvd., Oakville, Ont.