Before you bite into that honey-dipped apple slice, consider this: If you bought your Rosh Hashanah fruit in one of Los Angeles’ supermarkets and it didn’t have a sticker that said “California” on it, it was probably picked halfway around the world just before Passover — or it came from Washington and has been sitting in a nearly freezing, oxygen-reduced chamber since Chanukah.
California’s orchards yield about 3.5 million boxes (140 million pounds) of whole apples every year, making it the fifth-largest producer of the fruit in the United States. But although the 2010 harvest started about a month ago, scanning the shelves of local Ralphs, Gelson’s, Pavilions and Trader Joe’s supermarkets didn’t turn up any local apples for sale.
“The challenge that we face in California is, you have a lot of Southern Hemisphere fruit that comes in,” said Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission, speaking about apples that are imported to the Golden State from New Zealand and Chile. Controlled-atmosphere storage methods can keep apples tasting fresh for up to a year, which means that holdover from Washington’s 2009 harvest also helps crowd California’s just-picked apples out of the market.
None of the supermarkets mentioned above responded to questions about whether they ever carry apples from California. “There is some resistance from some retailers to carry California apples,” said Jeff Colombini, a grower with Lodi Farming who farms a 300-acre apple orchard. “Some of it stems from the fact that we [California apple growers] prefer not to store apples for long periods of time,” whereas retailers, Colombini said, “prefer to buy from one source [year-round].”
Price likely also comes into play. The Apple Commission’s Ott said that fresh apples do “cost a little bit more [than] something that’s six months to a year old” — a claim that was borne out at local farmers markets, where organic California apples cost about 1 1/2 times what an imported organic apple does at Trader Joe’s.
Only one Los Angeles supermarket would confirm that it sells California apples when they are in season: Whole Foods. “With the holiday, and the start of the new school year, we will have a good variety of local apples,” a publicist for Whole Foods wrote in an e-mail. “We cannot predict exactly which varietals will be available due to a number of factors, but [we] are proud to bring our customers the best choices possible.”
There are a few reasons to go out of your way to find local apples. Eating local produce avoids the environmental impact involved in shipping food around the world. Buying from local farms supports families in California — and the American economy as a whole. Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to making the Jewish community and the American community healthier and more sustainable, offers both of these reasons on its Web site.
But for Jews looking for new fruits to eat while celebrating this New Year, there’s one more reason to buy local apples: variety. Most of the apples grown in California should be familiar — Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Pink Lady — but many local smaller growers go beyond the greatest hits. In late August, the Windrose Farm stand at the Wednesday Farmers Market in Santa Monica had Gravenstein, New Jersey and Pink Pearl apples on display from its farm in Paso Robles and expects to have 10 varieties on display this week.
See Canyon Farms in San Luis Obispo County grows more than 80 different varieties of apples on about 60 acres, and also sells in Santa Monica on Wednesday. Mike Cirone, who has been growing apples at See Canyon for 27 years — his Gala is spectacular — is a big fan of Elstar apples, which he said was the top-selling variety in Europe. “I’ve always been surprised that Elstar never caught on here,” Cirone said.
The See Canyon Elstars have a firm texture, a refreshing crunch, and are neither too sweet nor too tart. They’re green and are smaller than the apples most Americans are used to — which explains why you might not find them in supermarkets.
“Consumers pick based on looks, not necessarily taste,” Ott of the California Apple Commission said. But he’s convinced that his state’s apples — which are shipped fresh to 60 countries around the world — taste better. “If you want good-tasting fresh apples,” Ott said, “California — when they’re in season — is the place to buy, because we do not store our apples. We pick ’em, pack ’em and ship ’em.”
Which is one more reason it’s worth heading to a farmers market for apples before Rosh Hashanah: You can try before you buy.