It's apple season-the time of year when it's easy for almost everyone to see and taste the benefits of food produced nearby. This weekend, look for local apples at farmers' markets, roadside stands, cider mills, pick-your-own orchards, and some neighborhood markets. Fresh picked in nearby orchards, Macintoshes, Macouns, Cortlands, Baldwins, Northern Spies, Staymans, Winesaps and Ida Reds are all delicious. They have the wonderful firm texture and flavorful juiciness which distinguishes fruit grown close to home. Their patina, a faint milky bloom, says they are fresh.
Oh, I know. You can go down to the supermarket any day in any season and find some red, yellow and green apples. They come from such places as Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and even as close as California and Washington State. They're very shiny because most of them are coated with waxes and maybe fungicides, too. These apples always look better than they taste. This time of year, you may even find some local apples in the supermarket, but they soon pick up the flavor of their surroundings. There's no way around it, the closer you get to the tree, the better the apple tastes.
Apples get tired, sort of beaten up, if they travel too far, are roughly handled, or spend too much time in a plastic bag. Imagine if you were popped into a box with dozens of your kind, shipped 6,000 miles and then dumped out onto a supermarket shelf. You might be a little tired and beaten up too.
Compare one of those apples with a just-picked Connecticut one. You'll soon recognize the effect that long-distance shipping has on taste.
Apples are alive, respiring and carrying on other biological processes. (If you want proof of this, take the seeds out of an apple and plant them. After winter's cold, many of them will germinate.) Using an understanding of apples' breathing, local growers are able to keep them for more than three months with "controlled atmosphere" storage. This system seals apples in a cool, air-tight room, and then replaces most of the oxygen with inert nitrogen. Without much oxygen, apples' respiration slows down, and with it, their biological imperative to rot so their seeds can get to the soil.
If we want to enjoy the pleasures of these fresh apples, we need to support local orchards, or grow our own. However, it's not so easy to grow a good crop of apples. Fungus diseases like scab, and insects such as plum curculio, oriental fruit moth, and apple maggot also find this fruit delicious.
Fortunately, a lot of progress is being made in reducing the chemicals needed to bring in a good crop. The University of Connecticut IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program helps orchardists to reduce the use of toxic sprays by monitoring insects and diseases carefully. The Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven is testing hardy, pest-resistant varieties which will produce a good crop without using pesticides. Some of these varieties are ideal for the home gardener. At High Hill Orchard in Meriden, Wayne Young uses compost and rock powders in a long-term, soil-building program, and is experimenting with compost sprays to control apple-scab fungus.
Notice our double interest in reducing the use of toxic materials in agriculture. We would like our farmer neighbors to use fewer or no poisonous chemicals, and we'd like to eat fruit with fewer chemicals on it.
The Macoun is our favorite apple- a wonderful mix of tart and sweet flavors, firm and crunchy. It is usually available for a limited time, so eat them while you can. Wayne Young says his favorite variety is whichever one is "just ripe."
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture publishes a list of state apple orchards, and a listing of farmers' markets. To get these lists, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the attention of the Marketing Division, Department of Agriculture, State Office Building, Hartford, CT 06106.
There are two lessons to be learned with every bite of a local apple. First, local food tastes better. And second, in order to have local food, we need to have an ecological agriculture that we can live with.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.