Adaptability and Grit Sustain Apple Farming in Sonoma County

Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
July 29, 2022

The thought of Sonoma may conjure a vision of warm sunlight falling over endless rows of picturesque vineyards. Before it was wine country, however, it was apple country. Sebastopol, a city in western Sonoma County, was widely known for growing apples and bringing people together to celebrate the fruit with harvest festivals and pressing parties. At one point, it was renowned as the “Gravenstein Capital of the World” for a particularly beloved variety.

The region’s residents, with the help of migrant workers, have been growing apple orchards since the early nineteenth century. Among these early apple growers was David Hale’s family. A fifth-generation farmer and one of the founding farmers of Mission Community Market, David maintains the orchards at Hale’s Apple Farm on the farmland that his family has worked on since the 1860s, adapting to changing economies and weather conditions and carrying on the region’s traditions. 

Orchards Competing with Vineyards

Amid neighbors of farms-turned-vineyards, David continues to care for the 10 acres of orchards that remain of the family’s original 90. David says, “When I first started farming, I was in a commodity market, and we farmed a lot of acres back in 1982. I probably harvested 1,000 tons of fruit. Now, I farm 10 acres of apples, and instead of selling it to corporate America, we sell it to the public.”

Commodity pricing programs were initiated in the 1920s as a form of crop insurance to compensate farmers for growing raw materials that could be bought or sold (such as apples for apple juice). Although they were meant to offer some relief to farmers during the Great Depression, they may not provide the same benefits for farms who don’t meet the acreage requirements. For these smaller farms, it is often more profitable to sell through direct marketing, such as through farmers markets. 

When commodity marketing became unsustainable for David Hale’s family farm, they pivoted to direct marketing, selling apples and other crops as specialty crops. “If I had stayed in a commodity market, would I have been able to survive?” David asks himself. “No, If it wasn’t for the direct marketing program, we would have starved to death.”

David isn’t the only apple farmer to have felt the strain of a changing agricultural landscape. “The apple industry as a whole is a dying industry in Sonoma County—the problem being that there’s a higher value crop, so the use of the land is in high demand,” he says.  In 2020, grapes were California’s third most valued agricultural commodity. Wineries and grape growers are continuously tempted by Sonoma’s rich farmland, and in the last century have replaced many of the region’s famed apple orchards. 

Sustaining a Healthy Farm “at the Mercy of Mother Nature”

Along with competition for the land and the competitive market pricing, David also adapts to the dry inland climate. “With the apples, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature to begin with,” David says, “and we have to roll with what’s thrown at us.” In the face of climate change and drought, he employs a few methods to address fire hazards and conserve water. 

Learning from past generations, David cultivates soil on the farm, turning it over to bury the natural debris and dried weeds or grasses. “It’s something that’s always been done out here,” he says. This process helps address potential fire hazards. David explains, “The California sun will dry out the grasses that grow naturally and if you leave it, it’s a fire hazard. So we cultivate that into the soil.” Cultivating creates a soft berm, or rounded mound of soil that acts as an insulator and keeps the clay subsoil moist. 

Along with tilling the soil to retain moisture, David practices dry farming to conserve water. New apple trees require irrigation at first, while their roots are still growing. After a few years, the trees can be dry farmed, meaning they can grow without direct irrigation by accessing the water stored deeper in the ground. This method also results in more flavorful fruit.

Polyculture, a method of growing more than one crop in the same space, also helps to conserve water, while mimicking natural biodiversity. “As we have started growing other crops like pumpkin, we plant the pumpkin underneath the apple trees,” says David. The shallow root system of the pumpkins requires direct watering, and the indirect result is that the orchard trees also receive a bit of extra hydration. 

Despite the challenges, David is determined to continue to bring the same high-quality food at consistent prices to the farmers market. “This year, we’re not planning on raising prices, even though we’ve taken a huge hit on fuel and labor. Our prices are probably going to remain the same as what they have been, mostly because people still have to eat.”

Bringing Tree-Ripened Fruit to the Mission Community

A few decades ago, Hale’s Apple Farm would attend 12 farmers markets a week. “There were a lot of other farmers that were doing the same thing back in the eighties. Some of them still had to quit because they got squeezed out by the corporate agriculture industry.”

Currently, the farm attends four farmers markets, in addition to running a daily stand at the farm. Although David finds himself enduring an 18-hour workday to make it to two markets on Thursday—including Foodwise’s Mission Community Market, where Hale Apple Farm’s August return is eagerly anticipated each year—he recognizes the importance of direct sales at farmers markets. 

“The market is a mutually benefiting mechanism. It’s a benefit for the people that shop there, in that they’re getting high-quality, tree-ripened fruit. It’s a benefit for the farmers because we’re setting higher prices than commodity pricing.” says David.

As a way to give back to the community, Hale’s Apple Farm donates pumpkins and squash for a pumpkin patch during Mission Community Market’s annual Halloween celebration each October. “We all come up and set up all the pumpkins, and all the little kids in the community come out and get to enjoy that.”

At the farmers market, Hale’s Apple Farm is received by a loyal base of customers who appreciate 40 unique varieties they bring over the course of the season, including heirloom favorites like Gravenstein, Pink Pearl, and Ashmead’s Kernel. By directly selling to farmers market customers, David is able to carry on Sebastopol’s longstanding tradition of apple growing, even in the changing landscape. “When I went into farming, I wanted to grow food for people, so I’m sticking with apples,” David says. “We’re bringing a good product, and it’s something that people can’t get at a local grocery store, something that’s fresh right off the tree.”

Find Hale’s Apple Farm at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays.

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