Nature Photography

Climate Resilience in Okanagan Agriculture 4: Rewilding Apples

There are too many apples in the world. Far too many. Too much cropland is taken up producing a product falling out of cultural favour. For 120 years in Canada, the solution for holding onto markets has been to reduce the number of varieties to a select number of cloned varieties. With 8 kinds of apples instead of 500 or 2,000, standardization and economy of scale have allowed for volume marketing. What that means today is that a popular local variety, Ambrosia…

Ambrosias, picked on a good day.

… a sweet, crunchy daughter of, by the taste of it, Delicious (not Red Delicious), has held the local fruit industry together since a small group of us held a private apple tasting, including on a whim the seedling Ambrosia, 30 years ago. The apples above were picked in good condition. You will find apples like that for a couple weeks in the fall. Then they’ll go into a very expensive controlled atmosphere storage, where they will be put into hibernation by being immersed in a low-oxygen atmosphere. The goal is to bring them back out in January, February, March, April or even May or June and sell them in a close-to-fresh condition. That’s the goal. Thing is, they are in pretty good shape the day they come out of storage, but then they catch up, rapidly, and by the time they hit the stores, they look more like this:

They don’t taste particularly great at this stage, but they’re OK, sort of. Within a couple weeks, ie, right now, in February, here in Vernon, in the home region of Ambrosia apples, they are in far worse shape than even that. More like this:

This, too:

I’m not trying to mislead you here. These are online images offered to positively advertise these fruits. Thing is, when they get to this stage, they are a pretty mediocre fruit that tastes of cold storage, have little or no crunch, and offer a good reason to buy a banana or an orange instead. “Buy local” campaigns to help out local farmers during the pandemic aren’t making a positive difference here. The apples are heaped up in the stores and unsold. It’s the end. And that’s the thing. One of the changes of climate experienced in the Okanagan Valley for 130 years has been the desertification of landscapes caused by the image of European bounty created by apples and other fruits. This false image of heat has been used to drive a real estate industry. It began with the sale of ranch land to create the first orchards, then was followed by the sale of orchards to create housing estates, and then to the sale of more orchards to plant grapes. The surviving orchards are in jeopardy. Currently, many survive by producing rather tasteless, giant cherries for an Asian market. In terms of climate risk, including water shortage and new insect pests, that makes no sense. The danger of all of this is that land that costs some $100,000 to $150,000 an acre is at risk of being declared unviable as agricultural space. The climate risk here is the collapse of a food-producing industry in the Okanagan Valley, under pressure by landowners to get their value out of it by converting it into cash through the hot real estate market. We’ll be left with vineyards, which feed no-one. That is a huge climate risk, driven by human desires for warmth and comfort and, frankly, White images of European bounty. I think there’s a fix: wild apples. The one below, growing on a dry hill from a core I threw out while taking photos for this blog, is growing in my yard now.

Forty years ago, I collected another one, late one November day, after apple picking in Kelowna:


They are pretty fine, even if they taste like flowers, riesling wine, fresh pineapples, and Snows, and look like green tomatoes.

Here’s one I collected ten years ago. It makes really very, very fine apple pies:


Every apple tree has the potential for, say, 3,000 apples, each with 5 seeds, which means that each one is capable of having 15,000 children, all different, with different adaptations to climate and weather, and all suitable for processing, juice and cider, and more than a few for eating. What they might not be suitable for is grocery store advertising imagery. They are not suited for a standardized industry, but are suited for growing in a wide variety of settings, including urban ones and mountain ones, to provide variety worthy of a connoisseur wine shop. We can create value through widespread multiplicity and variance, and increase our chances of getting a new variety that can capture the imagination for forty years like Ambrosia did. I have my favourites. I travel to the South of the Valley every fall, on the hunt for Newtown Pippins, a wild variety from New York in the early 19th Century, but to make a pie, I only have to go to my backyard and pick 20 of these little Fintry’s. What I propose is to give apple seeds away, plant them everywhere, deal with the insect problems through technology, and remove apple growing from the professionals, completely, until such time as they learn to market and develop the daughters that gardeners and gatherers bring in from streets, gardens, riverbanks and forests in an annual competition to find the best new apple of the year. We can slow the climate change effects of urbanization this way. If we don’t do this, or something like this, it will just get hotter and hotter here, with less and less water and land available for agriculture, and social resilience hovering at rock bottom. Doom and gloom, this is not. For instance, most of the dwarf orchards around the world are grown on paradise apple roots, this species:

Onto these soft and lumpy things, all varieties are grafted, and then torn out a dozen years later, because the cross-species grafts aren’t the best. Each of them, however, contains seeds, and each of those seeds is fertilized by a surrounding apple. It could be that a new apple rootstock is waiting to be found, one that requires no grafting, because it is a cross between, say, an Ambrosia and a Paradise Apple, and who knows what that would be like. It might be good for cider, or it might be good for keeping farmland alive for another forty years. All I know is that these rootstocks are suffering under climate change and their poor level of adaptation to poor farming practices. If we keep going the way we are, climate change will knock us off our feet. If we stop cloning apples, we can make this fun again, and eat.

Carbon Savings: Limited.

Food Resiliency Values: High.

Land Preservation: High.

Cost: Less than zero, due to savings on farm production costs.

Industrial Potential: Billions, especially in cider production, food production and tourism.

So, plant an apple core today, eh!

2 replies »

  1. I always love your reports about apple (especially) growing. I think your experiences and theory are sound and deserves wide dissemination. I don’t suppose that the industry is beating a path to your doorstep, but sometimes disasters and possible bankruptcies make people more receptive.

    Oh. . . and about this:”and offer a good reason to buy a banana or an orange instead.” I have eaten Indian River oranges off the tree in Florida and everyone I’ve ever known who’s lived in Central America says that we don’t real “real” bananas in Canada. The insipid things that they call oranges in the supermarket deceive people into thinking–through want of choice and freshness–these actually like “without tasting any.” (In my opinion.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oranges and lemons have good marketing, that’s for sure. I’ll see if I can get some photos of just how dire the orchards are throughout the valley. There was a real push to change orcharding to a high density system, and the disaster is coming down the pipe real fast. The trees are in bad shape. Not all, but very many.


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