While the exact numbers are often debated, it’s safe to say there are over 25,000 varieties of apples in the world, over 16,000 of which are being grown in North America today.
Susan Futrell spouts these statistics off the top of her head because she recently published a book, Good Apples: Behind Every Bite, that explains the history, labor, production and marketing issues in the apples industry. Susan has spent over 35 years working for food businesses, nonprofit organizations and farms, with over 20 of those 35 years spent in the organic and natural foods sector. She is currently the Director of Marketing for the nonprofit Red Tomato, which does marketing, logistics and marketing development for a network of fruit and vegetable farmers in the northeastern US.
Of the 16,000 different kinds of apples those of us living in North American should theoretically be able to get our hands on, Susan says “only a few of them actually show up in the grocery stores and a few more at farmers markets.” Having always enjoyed apples, Susan “returned” to the fruit as her thinking shifted: “[I] went from thinking of them as kind of ordinary and common and mundane, to being really fascinated by the unique varieties and diversity in different kinds [of apples] in history,” she shares.
With this hunger for apples beyond the common Red Delicious variety, Susan began to learn more. She talked to farmers with orchards across the country and was surprised to learn that although they were smart, conscientious and ecologically savvy, many of them were not farming organically. Ultimately, Susan—a staunch supporter of organic for many years—came to the conclusion that organic agriculture may work better for some farmers as an “organic, AND…” model, rather than insisting on “organic, full stop.” “I’ve become not in any way less enthusiastic about organic – I’m still a big supporter of that – but I’m with organic: ‘yes, AND…’ I think of that with 95% of other farms in the US that are farming using different methods, there are lots and lots of positive things going on that I really wasn’t aware of before.”
From Alar to integrated pest management, Susan shares her abundant knowledge of apples and the agriculture industry—saying that perhaps organic could be met with a “yes, AND…” attitude rather than taking the all-or-nothing approach.
Want more? Check out our episode with organic pioneer Bob Scowcroft, who also was deeply involved in the Alar on apples crisis, or this episode with author Barry Estabrook, who digs into the bigger picture of pork and tomato production.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Susan Futrell
Air Date: October 30, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Susan Futrell, author of the book Good Apples: Behind Every Bite. Welcome, Susan!
SUSAN FUTRELL: Thank you so much for having me.
TM: You know, Sue, we have been friends for, I’m going to say maybe 30 or 35 years or so, and I am so thrilled to see this book. And I’m even more thrilled to be talking about apples for a half an hour. The apple—what more symbolic fruit can there be than an apple? And what a versatile, amazing, wonderful, delicious… How many variety of apples are there?
SF: You know, it depends on who’s counting, but there are something like over 2,500 being grown and sold right now, and in the 16,000s or more that have been grown just in North America in the last few centuries.
TM: You just surprised me, I thought you were going to say something like 300 and I was already going to be flabbergasted by it.
SF: No, there are thousands. And everyone has their favorite.
TM: But yet, isn’t it true that most of the apples that are grown now are like, Red Delicious? Are we down to five apples, like we’re down to three kinds of corn?
SF: It’s true, there are—of all those many varieties of apples that can and are being grown, only a few of them actually show up in the grocery store, and a few more show up in the farmers’ market and at pick-your-own orchards around the country. I think there are more choices and more apple varieties available now than there were for a number of years. You used to only be able find four or five, and it was the same four or five no matter where you were in the country—like Granny Smiths, Red Delicious. And now you have a better chance of finding both new varieties, like Honeycrisp and things that have been bred and developed in the last few years, and also some of the old varieties as people are getting more interested and looking for those.
TM: All those wonderful varieties—my mother’s favorite was Macintosh.
SF: Oh, and still there are a lot of Macintosh grown in the Northeast.
TM: Yeah, when I was little, I remember my mother would say, “This one for applesauce, this one for apple pies, this one for eating.” And so this was—my mother, of course, she was raised on a farm and just was very picky about all those things.
SF: Well, it’s true, and it’s part of why there are so many varieties that people keep growing, because they’re all good for different kinds of uses. And you know, some people like sweet, some people like tart. And so it is one of the things that I truly love about apples is just all the variety and the diversity, and the way that everybody can have their own favorite.
TM: Well, it’s so easy for me to launch into just apple trivia here because it’s so deep, it’s so wide. How is it that you got to writing this book about apples, and what did it bring you back to?
SF: Well, I started working with… I mean, I have loved apples since I was a kid, and I grew up eating apples like you did. My favorite is the Jonathan still—it’s a good Midwestern apple that you don’t see everywhere. So I always liked apples and felt like they were something, you know, I knew where they grew; there was an orchard in the neighborhood where I grew up. But I didn’t really appreciate them until I had been working in the natural food and organic food business for many years. And I moved out of the grocery part of that to start working more directly with produce farms, and at the same time got more and more interested in kind of the emerging slow food and heirloom food conversation about all these varieties that were being lost. So, my initial, kind of, return back to apples was I went from thinking of them as kind of ordinary and common and mundane to being really fascinated by all of the unique varieties and different kinds and history.
So I got interested in that, which led me to meet and talk with and start to understand some of the challenges of people who were growing apples for a living. And that was the point that really shifted things for me and I began to see apples as kind of a lens for looking at many of the issues and challenges that face farmers in all parts of agriculture. But I think because apples are familiar and comforting and something that almost everybody loves, it’s an opportunity to take apart some of the black-and-white, either/or kinds of thinking that it’s easy to fall into, and start to understand how connected everything in farming and agriculture is, and how connected that is to us as eaters.
TM: Well, you know, I had a very excellent interview recently with Bob Scowcroft, and he was the first executive director of CCOF, the California Certified Organic Famers. And he was there from 1987 to—guess what—1991. And what happened in 1991 with apples?
SF: Well, right around that time—and this was another story that I revisited in the book—there was a report developed and released by the Natural Resources Defense Council about the use of a particular chemical in farming called Alar. It was used commonly on apples, and some of the researched indicated that in high concentrations there were health risks, particularly for children. And, of course, children eat a lot of apples, drink juice; their bodies are smaller and more proportionally at risk. So here we were, at the time I was working in the organic industry also, selling a lot of organic apple juice. And the story hit the news at 60 Minutes—it was just a complete explosion of, at the beginning, kind of fear and, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to pour my apple juice down the sink. How can I be drinking and feeding my children something that might be dangerous?”
So, it took this very, kind of comforting food and turned it into a scary thing for a lot of people. And it also sort of catapulted a lot of organic companies into both a spotlight and a positive opportunity to offer alternatives to people. It also pushed forward, I think, a lot of very challenging changes in the way people started to think about food, and fruit and vegetables in particular, that have not always led to better practices and better results. But at the time, I think I felt very fortunate to be working in the organic industry and working with people who were able to step up and say, “Here’s an alternative, you don’t have to be afraid. This is juice that was grown without the use of this particular chemical and a lot of others.”
And so one of the big surprises for me was beginning to work with apple growers. I work with a group of growers particularly in the northeast, in New England and New York, who are very progressive, ecological farmers with long decades of commitment to integrative pest management and biological controls and ecological management of their orchards. And if you say the word Alar to a commercial apple grower, it’s a terrible, terrible reminder of a time when the bottom dropped out of that industry and prices dropped. Orchards went out of business. Many, many family-owned orchards never recovered from people’s shock at deciding that they weren’t going to buy apple juice and apples anymore.
And so that little opening, in a way, was an opening for me, in the book, to go back and look at a lot of the things that I have been concerned and that lots of lots of consumers and eaters are concerned about—pesticides, pest management, science in farming; other issues like labor and immigration policy, global economics—and really take a step back and try to understand those point of view of the farmers. And I came out of all of that with a really strong belief that for us to have a good, sustainable food system moving forward, it has to be something that works for the people who are growing the food, and that we have to recognize a larger responsibility than just shopping with our dollars, to creating the kinds of support that farmers need to be sustainable growers. So it’s kind of a return to early thinking in one way, but it was a long circle around that took me to a lot of surprising places.
TM: Well, you know, you say “surprising places,” Sue. What do you mean by that?
SF: Probably this question that we’re talking about is one of them. I think before I was working closely with growers, it was very easy for me, even as someone fairly involved in food and food marketing, to say, “Oh, of course everyone should grow this way. Everyone should be organic. That’s the only kind of food I would eat.” And I think, looking more closely at reasons why people make different choices when they’re farming different locations, apples in particular are interesting because 93 percent of the organic apples that are grown commercially in the U.S. are grown in one state; they’re grown in Washington. There’s a climate there that lends itself to organic production because it’s arid and the pest pressures are lower than many other parts of the country. There’s also a large apple industry there, so there are big stretches of land that can be farmed using things like mating disruption and biological control of like beneficial parasite insects and that kind of thing, that are much harder to do in smaller orchards that are interspersed among other kinds of farming and agriculture [unclear] development and housing and neighborhoods.
And so as I talked to these farmers, who are very, very, as I said, ecologically minded—they don’t like using any more spray than they have to, they’re very focused on building pollinators and strong ecosystems in their orchards—and so I kind of had to take a step back and say, well, okay, they’re making different choices than I thought they should be making from my position far away from the orchard. Why is that? And what would it take for them to have better alternatives? And so that was a big education for me.
I’ve become, not in any way less enthusiastic about organic—I’m still a big supporter of that. But I’m now with “organic—yes, and...” And I think of that 95 percent of other farms in the U.S. that are farming using different methods. There are lots and lots of positive things going on that I really wasn’t aware of before. And we like to say those farmers are far from conventional. And I wanted to be able to shed some light on their stories and understand a little more how other kinds of practices, in addition to organic, could be really beneficial and positive.
TM: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sue Futrell, and we’re talking about her new book Good Apples: Behind Every Bite.
Well, you know, it’s so interesting because you and I are the same. I feel like I grew up in an organic movement that wasn’t even an industry, just because I felt that we were not using pesticides judiciously—that we were getting kind of reckless. And so I felt like everything should be organic. And I think what I’m hearing you say is, and I like the way you said it, “Organic and…” I might finish that and say something like, “Organic and common sense,” depending on the product and where it is, and so on.
And then I was also thinking, while you were speaking, that the unfortunate reality of produce, and we’ve trained consumers to only want beautiful produce. And certainly there’s a cost for beautiful produce, that if we could put up with a gnarly apple, that probably organic apples would be grown everywhere. I know there’s things like codling moth and lots of other things that are really, really difficult. And so I think what you’re talking about is a way of having local produce that isn’t 100 percent organic but is using some pesticides judiciously. Is that what I think I’m hearing you say?
SF: I would agree with that, and I think… I mean, you’re right, that a lot of what is used on commercial apples is cosmetic—it’s to make the apples look better and be more appealing. One of the great things about the local food movement and being able to buy so much more direct from farmers, farmers’ markets and CSAs, is that I think consumers who are in that close of a relationship with where their food comes from have gotten more flexible about what they’re willing to consider good quality, and not as focused on how something looks, because they want to know how it tastes and where it came from. And so I think those are all good things.
But yes, I think that… I think another surprising thing for me, because I have assumed that the decline of variety and the fact that you could only buy a few varieties in the grocery store for so long was kind of some big out-there, other, industrial process going on that was forcing out the smaller varieties. And to some extent that’s true; there’s consolidation and efficiencies that are pushing things to become more standard. A lot of the pressure towards standardizing and wanting to be able to walk in any grocery store in the country any time of year and find those four kinds of apples that are familiar—that you know what they are and you know what to do with them even if they’re not the best apples you ever tasted—comes from shoppers and consumers. And so, starting to understand the ways that we can help shift that balance by being more open to regional varieties and understanding more about… Some varieties are more disease resistant, and if they sold better, that’s another way that farmers might be able to reduce their use of chemicals, for example. But people don’t recognize the Liberty apples, so they go for the Honeycrisp or the Red Delicious, even though Liberty was originally bred by Cornell as a disease-resistant apple.
So it just really made me recognize how implicated we all are in these challenges and pressures that farmers have, and that it’s not really enough. Again, it’s a sort of a “Yes, and…” It’s great to shop at farmers’ markets, it’s great to focus on buying local, but it’s not really enough to do that and feel like we’re somehow making it possible for commercial farms to stay in existence.
TM: Well, you know, I know the Liberty apple, and it is delicious. And I remember it—
SF: It is, isn’t it?! And, I mean, so many wonderful apples out there that you’ve never heard of because they’re not easy to market.
TM: Yeah, that’s the problem. And of course, I think what you’re saying is, as usual, we eaters have a lot to say about what kind of apples are out there. I think though, I want to keep going back, and I want to talk to you—and I think you talk about it in your book— something that is commonly called IPM or integrated pest management. And I believe that if we want local apples that probably aren’t disease-resistant and/or want to keep up as many varieties as possible, isn’t this integrated pest management, also called IPM, pretty standard? And maybe you could talk a little bit about it and educate us all on what is IPM and how is it used in apple production?
SF: That’s a great question because, again, something I just didn’t know anything about. And it turns out that integrated pest management, which is kind of a philosophy of growing that, in particular, has been developed in a lot of the land grant research universities around the country, is very much a toolbox, if you will, that many organic growers already use. And it’s very compatible with organic, but there are a lot of other growers using integrated pest management philosophies to do other kinds of sustainable production. And the basic underlying premise is that you manage your crops by understanding the biology—the ways plants operate, the way the pests operate—and then you create circumstances and situations that foster healthy plants and reduce the presence of pests and insects that are damaging to the plants. And you do it with the least toxic methods possible.
So a lot of organic growers use IPM. Some examples of the techniques—now, this can get, you can get totally nerded out on some very cool science if you want to read about integrated pest management—this is where things like mating disruption, where pheromones are scattered around the orchard that confuse the insects and they can’t mate and therefore they don’t reproduce and then they die out inside the orchard; or introduction of a parasitic wasp that eats the eggs of a particular pest, and so if you can get them in balance in the orchard you can control the bothersome insects with the presence of a different insect that is good for every…that doesn’t eat apples, basically. So I think what I love about IPM is that it is very much adapted to the particular situation in an orchard, which can even change from year to year or season to season. There might be different microclimates in an orchard, where in one part of it it’s damper and there’s more pressure from a particular disease, and another part of the orchard, no issues.
So all the treatments are very carefully tailored and targeted to just reduce and then you use the minimum level of toxic treatments, and yet still make decisions to control insects or protect the health of the trees. In situations where an organic grower, for example, might be limited to a particular group of synthetic materials to treat for something, an IPM grower has the option to go in and use something that might control it more quickly or more effectively. But, again, with the same, very similar to organic, this overview of what’s going to be best for the orchard and the health of the fruit and the people working in the orchard in the long run.
TM: Sue, it is so fun to talk about apples, and I’m just wondering, you said that the Jonathan—and Sue is from Iowa—and the Jonathan is an Iowa apple, isn’t it?
SF: And actually, I believe, was developed at Geneva, New York—like so many apples, the product of good land-grant apple-breeding research. But it’s been grown much more in the Midwest. It was a popular apple in the Midwest when I was growing up. And in the East, where I work with growers now, I almost never see Jonathans.
TM: They’re rare to see—I haven’t seen a Jonathan, I don’t think, for a long time. And yet, you said in the beginning of our discussion that there actually are 2,500 apples being grown here in North America this year?
SF: I think that’s the current number that I have seen from the Slow Foods folks, is that there is something like that currently being grown. Now, some of them are in very small numbers. But the really amazing number to me is that, over time, something like 16,000 varieties have been grown in North America since apples were first introduced here. And that’s another fun fact about apples, is that they are an immigrant to North America, like most of the rest of us. They’re not native here.
TM: Yeah, where were they first grown?
SF: They first came from the mountains of what is now Kazakhstan, so that central Asian– European borderland. And they were carried out of there by animals and humans on the Silk Road and trade routes, and eventually came to North America with mostly European settlers who brought them over, mostly as seeds, initially, although eventually people started bringing cuttings of old favorite European apples. But I’ve read that the introduction of apples into the North American continent was one of the biggest explosions of genetic diversity ever in the history of apples, because so many seeds were brought and planted. Every single seed is different; every single seed produces a different kind of apple. That’s part of why there are so many varieties, is that they’re more like humans: each little seed packet has its own set of characteristics. You never know what you’re going to get.
TM: Well, for our listeners, our citizen eaters, Good Apples: Behind Every Bite by Susan Futrell is out now! And Sue, is it available widely yet in our favorite bookstores or do we have to look for it online?
SF: It is available online from your various favorite online retailers, as well as you could ask your bookstore to order it or your local library to order it—another good way to get ahold of the book if you’re a local library supporter.
TM: And so, librarians and everyone out there, Good Apples: Behind Every Bite. And for those of you who really like to read stories about farmers, their passions, and their challenges, Sue’s book is a great read for just learning about what happens behind every bite of an apple. So, Sue, thank you so much for this lovely book and for your passion for apples, and all the good, good work you do for the Good Food business and world.
SF: Thank you so much, Theresa. It’s really a pleasure to talk with you.
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