Growing Risk: Sebastopol Apple Farmers Face Hard Times

Michigan Apple Orchard

It’s 4:17 a.m. and fog drapes over the apple orchards of Devoto Gardens like misty gauze. While most of Sebastopol sleeps, apple grower Stan Devoto is in his kitchen boiling water. “It’s too early to brew coffee,” he says, grabbing a bag of green tea. He drops the tea bag into his favorite mug and reaches for the door.

There’s still 60 miles to drive, a truck to unload, apples to organize, signs to put up, and flowers to arrange, before his day of selling apples at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market in San Francisco even begins. Behind the wheel of his Toyota Previa, Stan blasts oldies on the radio to keep awake.

Back in the 1970s—some ten years before Stan started Devoto Gardens—Sebastopol was the Gravenstein capital of the world. But apple farming isn’t what it used to be. Sonoma County’s land has become so expensive that vineyards and multi-million dollar homes have replaced most of the apple orchards.

Out of the Kitchen

The Slow Food Foundation for bio-diversity named the Gravenstein one of the country’s near-extinct heirloom apple varietals with the hope of drawing national attention to the plight of apple growers. Yet despite the apple’s historic status and its delicious versatility, the future of the Gravenstein apple looks bleak.

Growing Risk

The cost of doing business is quickly becoming an issue for the ten remaining apple farmers in Sebastopol. The long hours, the backbreaking work, the utility bills, taxes, and soaring price of insurance and fertilizer make the economic feasibility of apple farming nearly impossible. With the return on investment that wine grapes offer, many growers are leaving the apple business entirely.

But despite growing financial pressures, Devoto Gardens continues. Flavor could have something to do with Devoto’s success. At a recent barbecue, a handful of children ignored confectionary delights to eat not one, but three Devoto Gardens’ apples in one sitting.

Devoto sells nearly 50 mature heirloom varieties like Honey Crisp, Black Twig, Pink Pearl and Gravenstein. And they’ve been selling heirloom varieties for years—way before the heirloom trend caught on like wild fire.

“From very early on Stan wanted to plant lots of different apples,” his wife Susan explains. “We were lucky because he thought of making the change early.” Stan’s instinct to plant apples with differing flavors and uses gave Devoto Gardens a head start on getting heirloom apples into farmers’ markets.

Devoto Garden’s dedicated participation in farmers’ markets is an undeniable factor in their success. By selling apples directly to customers and restaurants, Devoto is able to bypass middlemen and pocket the money that distributors usually charge. “Without farmer’s markets and relationships with chefs,” Devoto is quick to suggest, “We wouldn’t be in business.”

Selling directly to customers nine times a week isn’t easy. The drive alone to farmers markets like the Ferry Building, Marin, St. Helena, Napa and Walnut Creek takes hours a day and keeps Stan away from the farm for long stretches of time. “It’s difficult to be a grower and a distributor,” Devoto says. “But you have to do all in order to survive. You can’t stay on your tractor all day long. ”

For more information about the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidia Project, click here.

Out of the Kitchen

THE GRAVENSTEIN APPLE: First planted in 1811, the Gravenstein is one of the first apples grown and sold in Sonoma County. Known for its versatility as a sweet-tart, crisp, and juicy apple. The Gravenstein is good for pies, sauces and snacking.

Devoto Farms: Visit Devoto Farms in Sebastopol to purchase apples and flowers directly from them or buy a variety of heirloom apples from their stand at farmers markets and specialty food stores throughout the San Francisco Bay area.  Call Devoto Farms for a complete listing of farmers markets they sell to. The Devoto’s can be found selling their apples at the Ferry Building every Saturday in San Francisco.

Devoto Farms: 655 Goldridge Road, Sebastopol, CA; (787) 823-6650

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

5 Comments

  1. November 9
    Reply

    Can we buy direct from Stan? Does Devoto Gardens have an address and business hours? I tried clicking on the link for the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidia Project and the link was broken! Thank you!

    • November 10
      Reply

      Gina, Great comments. I’ve updated the post and corrected the broken link. You can buy directly from Stan from both his farm and stand at numerous SF area farmers markets. Thank you for your interest in Devoto Farms. They grow some of the best tasting apples I’ve ever tried!

  2. November 17
    Reply

    This is an excellent feature, Brooke. My grandparents lived in Sebastopol for decades and I have fond memories of my summers there. I’ll send this post to my relatives still in the area, in hopes of encouraging support.

  3. julia & pete
    August 22
    Reply

    Apples indescribably delicious ! ! ! ! !

    Need to know if you’re at the Marin Civic Center Farmers Market on Tues.

    We didn’t get enough on Sat. at the Ferry Building and couldn’t make it over to 9th & Irvine on Sunday.

    Thanks

    • Food Woolf
      August 23
      Reply

      @julia & pete, Since this isn’t the official site of the farmer you are looking for I can’t speak to their schedule! Try swinging by their website at Devoto Gardens.

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