Lost Knowledge: Apples and Culture

I weep. At the beginning of the 1980s, I grafted the first Fuji apples in this country, as part of an attempt to free us from the trade rules of the Canadian government, that needed to balance an export surplus to the United States with fruit imports from Australia. Sweet deals were cut to ensure the prosperity of big cities in central Canada. We were proud of those apples. It seems like there’s little pride now.

P1030102 Too small, unpicked and poorly pruned. They look like Fujis, but who knows with such small misshapen, brown things.

Back in the mid-1970s I was pruning some of the first apple trees ever planted in British Columbia: huge old half-dead Royal Rome snags that had been grafted just after the Second World War. The poorly-healed grafting stubs, 4 metres up in the sky, were hollow, and you could stick your whole leg inside and stand there as if you were the tree. My job that day was to prune the tiny fruiting branches called spurs, in order to renew them for another ten years. The trees below were more expensive to plant by at least a thousandfold, and are totally dependent not on the art of pruning or cultural care but on petrochemical fertilizers, hormones, and pesticides. They were never designed to last more than ten years.

P1030095Ten Years Was Quite Some Time Ago

Oh, you couldn’t sell these apples in a store. They’re too small. No one would buy them. They’re too used to buying large apples — or not buying them because they cost $1 a piece for something that tastes industrial.

You could almost get angry with the farmers for throwing their money away on capital-intensive technology, except it was the government which sent men around to teach them that this method would make them rich. The government then went on to subsidize plantings like this. You could almost get angry at the farmers for asking, now, that the government renegotiate the Columbia River Water Treaty, which was designed to transform British Columbia from an agricultural into an industrial society, in order to make Americans pay for the economic subsidy they have gained by cheap Mexican labour.P1030091 Well, almost. I mean, if you are going to keep trees as slaves, or if you’re going to treat agriculture as a chemical industry, or if your marketing scheme consists of head-on competition with corporations with complete access to your market through the North American Free Trade Agreement and who have economies of scale sixty times your own and who control the wholesaling and distribution networks that you also use, and then, after all that, if you’re going to do this, why? What are you bringing to the table? Rotten apples?P1030082Still, there might be a point to the farmers’ insistence on economic adjustments for international trade policy. It’s not agriculture that has proven to be a failure in British Columbia and Canada. It is British Columbia and Canada that have proven to be a failure to agriculture. On the other hand, I think there’s a primary rule in operation here, from a planetary perspective. If you’re going to drain a vital wetland to plant apples, you should do it for more than profit-taking or industrial purposes. You should be like Tom McCloughlin and his Red Rome trees back after the Second World War: you should plant because you want to make a living future. Making an industrial one in its place is a form of capitalization, and money will flow, always, to the most industrial, urban model. It is no way to grow food and no way to respect the earth. To do that, you have to plant trees that do not need fertilizers, thin them by hand rather than with hormones or poisons, and prune and graft them for renewal rather than slaughter. Oh, yeah, and you need to pick the damn apples and give them to people. If you’re not going to do that, you have a huge wetland or grassland debt you will never repay.

P1030076What’s more, here’s where the industrial model leads: GMO insanity.

3306-2-01115756e42195682aa49f245e23fdb40ec475eb-s40-c85Granny Smith Apple (left) and GMO Arctic Granny Smith (right).

Here’s the U.S. National Public Radio article on that apple on the right. These apples are the perfect image of a culture drugged by its ignorance.

Here’s the deal: the apple on the right will destroy the organic apple industry and the culture it feeds, which is lived and worked for by people who don’t use petrochemicals, prune their trees for renewal, and thin their apples by hand. Farmers can do this, because the apples are worth something, people want to buy them, and they are not a part of the boondoggle of contemporary apple wholesaling. All that knowledge and inter human, human-earth care will be thrown away the instant GMO apples are commercially planted. They are the AIDS of apple culture. And for what? So an apple doesn’t turn brown. Why, isn’t it interesting that all of this comes out of a community that has been fuelled in recent years by a white diaspora fleeing the increasingly humanly brown colour of cities to the East for a self-defined pure white past (It wasn’t, really). There was a time before that, for a few decades, in which people knew a few things: they knew to plant trees for the future, they knew how to work with them, artfully, to create social wealth, they had a culture of their own rather than one belonging somewhere else, and they bred new apple varieties rather than creating chemical gunk. The thing about farming is that every generation gets the farmers that reflect its deepest impulses. Two generations ago, these were farmers who wanted to work artfully with their hands. The government taught them this art, at the same time it taught them to introduce more chemicals and petrochemicals into it. A generation ago, these were farmers who wanted to work technically with statistical charts and chemical soups. The government taught them how to do that…then it shut its doors. It doesn’t teach anybody anything anymore. It has nothing to teach. It drank its own Kool Aid and considers government to be the business of statistics. Now it appears that society is reflected in many cases by farmers who want to let their apples fall to the ground for the lack of knowledge and economic misunderstanding, waiting for a governmental or industrial fix, earning industrial fixes from that government, rather than knowledge of how to work with land. No one has that anymore. It was purposefully bred out of the system. The most recent subsidy of the Okanagan apple industry by government was a new packinghouse, to set the packing of Okanagan apples on an equal efficiency footing with that of Washington, in the southern half of our valley. Well, isn’t that an industrial subsidy? Yes. Of course. That’s what an industrial, capitalized urban culture can understand, after it has lost knowledge of how to work with the earth. Well, here’s the thing: the taking of living land and turning it into a slave plantation has a debt, which can only be returned by adding more life to the land. The only place you are going to get that is from the addition of human effort. Capital or chemical effort just won’t do, because capital always flows to its source, which means that it doesn’t stay with the land, which means the debt is not repaid, and cultural and environmental and social poverty are the result. This is what poverty and food banks look like:

P1030075A government with a sense of the relationship between earth and human life would not have created the poverty which requires food banks, requiring subsidies of cash and industrially processed food and vast amounts of volunteer labour, to keep its children from starving to death. A society that had a connection with the earth would have found other, less-urban solutions to the problem, by moving the wealth of the earth to the people. Oh, and it was a mistake to grow these Fuji apples in the first place. We knew them as sweet apples off of the tree, with a snap when you bit into them in the frost, but raised on petrochemicals and turned into zombies with controlled atmosphere cold storage they taste like chemicals and stale water. If you bite into one and don’t taste that, it’s because you are used to eating petroleum products, not food from the earth. We grafted those apples to support farmers in crisis, looking for the income from Asian markets to compensate for the high land prices resulting from the transformation of this section of earth into the urban diaspora. It was, in other words, a social act, a commitment to transform our conversations with the earth into ones with the greatest social connection in the world ($$), without losing the earth in the process. It would have been better to have planted community orchards, because we did not, in the end, pay our debt. Farmers now are largely city men, who earnestly and honestly wish to get back to the land, or industrial farmers still chasing the colonial dream, and a few organic farmers under siege, who are making all the money. Thousands of acres of productive land has been turned into horse pastures in recent years. Many thousands of other acres are vacant: settings for large houses. Many hundreds of acres of productive fruit land within the city of Kelowna is producing apples on unirrigated trees. The apple fall to the ground. People who glean them are trespassing and breaking the law. The slave holders who own them claim that the land is not economically productive and must be turned into houses instead. Why? Because of their complete ignorance? So more people can come, and decrease the earth-human balance even further? We have a university in this community, but it doesn’t study or teach this stuff. That’s because it doesn’t know it either. It, too, comes from a distant culture and has little connection to this earth. The debt to the land, which goes back to the original colonial theft and its twin, the promise of health and renewal, remains unpaid. The interest is mounting. The sins of the 20th Century are going to take a long, long time to pay down. I think a good start would be to stop thinking of trees, and people, as economic slaves and to begin to govern again with the future in mind. That is how you make a future. What has been made here in the last twenty-five years is a past.


13 replies »

  1. Harold, you have covered a lot of territory in this post about apples and the culture of living. Apples, my favourite fruit, have been part of my life since I climbed apple trees as a child to harvest the green beginnings or to grasp that perfect red ripe gem. More recently, they have figured into my poetry but I have not had to depend on them, economically speaking. Last year, in Ontario, harsh weather almost devastated the apple crop for farmers but there has been a recovery this year.
    So glad you shared the big picture here along with photos. Food for thought! 🙂


    • They’re a big part of my life, too. In a calm moment, I hope to write an extended history in terms of fruit. In Ontario, you have access to golden russets! Lucky you! I hope you’re making the most of it. Best, Harold


    • Thanks for the support! Just so you know, this is my thinking my way into the conclusion of a book about the Okanagan, which I’m currently working deep inside.




      • Excellent news. I hope the book is the same format as your blog, Harold. Also that you add some of your wonderful poems to the mix as well. Looking forward to reading it, best wishes, Caroline


      • I like your wish. It will have an interesting, engaging shape, not what one might expect, and, yes, the plan is for pictures. That, however, is a second editing step, which I should get to in a month. Thanks. Harold


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