Posted on Thu, March 01, 2012 by Slow Food USA
20 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Slow Food Chapters in Action,
Written by Deirdra Stockmann, formerly of Slow Food Huron Valley (MI)
Sonoma County, California, is known the world around for wine. But for over 100 years the region was praised for its tree fruit, and its apples in particular. Arguably the most hallowed of the apples grown in the region is the Gravenstein. As one of the first apples to ripen in late summer, a fresh Gravenstein signals the coming of fall and marks the beginning of the autumn harvest.
Russian settlers brought the Gravenstein to California in the mid-19th century. Its genetic roots run even deeper into the soils of northern Europe where it was likely developed a century earlier. In and around Sebastapol, California, in the heart of Sonoma County, schools, streets, even a highway bear the name of the crisp, sweet apple. These landmarks are evidence of the Gravenstein’s prominent place in the (agri)cultural and culinary history of the region. (Learn more about the history here.)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, the Gravenstein was disappearing. Grapes, which also grow well in Coastal California, have become far more profitable than apples and other tree fruit. As David Masumoto’s memoir, Epitaph for a Peach, recounts, many farmers have been all but forced to plow under their generations-old orchards home to scores of varieties of apples, peaches, and plums to grow grapes, primarily for large-scale wine production.
Unwilling to accept the destruction of the orchards, Paula Shatkin and fellow volunteers at Slow Food Russian River stood up to defend the Gravenstein. In so doing, they defined what it means to be a co-producer in our food system. They harnessed the power of eaters to support Gravenstein growers and encourage diversity in the landscape and on our plates.
Saving the Gravenstein
Shatkin felt compelled to speak up on behalf of the Gravenstein and its growers because, in her words, “they are iconic here. Because they are such a visible part of our identity and our cultural history. Because our economy has in the past revolved around them. Because they are SO beautiful. And because we have to fight to preserve biodiversity.”
Shortly after Shatkin moved to Sebastapol, she attended a Slow Food Russian River meeting and proposed that they take action to save the Gravenstein. In empowering Slow Food chapter leader fashion, the leaders replied, “Why don’t you?” And she did.
The first step was to nominate the Gravenstein to be added to the international Slow Food Presidia, a program of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. To nominate a food for the Presidia, local leaders must document the historical and cultural importance of the food to the region, identify growers, and detail growing practices. In this effort, Shatkin had the help of Anya Fernald, then program director for the Slow Food Foundation and later the director of Slow Food Nation (2008). They raised a small amount of funding from the California Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to collect photographs and conduct interviews with Gravenstein farmers to document their growing practices.
Fernald hand-delivered the nomination materials to the Slow Food Foundation in Italy, and the Gravenstein was quickly approved. It is now one of several foods from North America in the Presidia. (Note: Nominations need not be hand delivered to Italy!)
Gaining Presidia status was only the beginning of what has been an almost 10-year campaign to keep the Gravenstein growing in California by promoting it to consumers and helping farmers find markets. “It’s become a year-round job for me,” Shatkin said. In the late winter and spring she works with a committee of volunteers to plan summer and fall events. The Gravenstein Apple Fair celebrates the return of the apple. The Free Apple Project committee partners with public libraries, local merchants, post offices, and farmers to distribute crates of apples and information to passersby (watch a short video below) during the peak season (August). Apple ambassadors attend dozens of farmers markets each fall and handout postcards depicting a classic Sebastapol Gravenstein crate label and “Save the Gravenstein” bumper stickers, along with recipes, informational brochures and apple calendars.
Throughout the year, Shatkin fields phone calls from farmers looking for help, chefs looking for apples, and journalists looking to share the story of how Slow Food Russian River is helping preserve and share a beloved food tradition in northern California.
Is there a Presidium-in-waiting in your region?
Is there a fruit or vegetable crop that is culturally important to your region and needs to be protected? How about a unique breed of livestock? Or seafood? Or cheese? Surely there are many more foods that need a convivial boost to save them from extinction. Creating a Presidia project is one way a local Slow Food chapter can have a real impact on our food system and communities.
Leaders take note: a job this important is not easy. It will take at least one passionate leader and a team of volunteers ready to make a commitment. Stewarding a Presidium is not about the certificate and the glossy brochures. It is about cultivating relationships and growing a regional movement. “The main thing that I have learned is you have to stick around for a long time, especially if you are not a farmer. You have to make trusting relationships with people, they have to believe that you are not a fly-by-night.” In addition to sticking it out, to be successful, Shatkin says, you need to “have to have a real passion, be able to inspire other people to share your passion.”
Click here for more information about the Gravenstein Apple Presidium.
Click here for more information about how to nominate a Presidia project.