Ap­ples still ap­peal­ing for nos­tal­gic few

Farm­ers, re­searchers hunt for lost Arkansas va­ri­eties from glory days

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - NATHAN OWENS

Scott Gothard, of Ar­morel, doesn’t claim what he does is prof­itable. Nei­ther do other heir­loom ap­ple grow­ers. He sees him­self more as a fruit preser­va­tion­ist, who finds na­tive ap­ple va­ri­eties once lost to earth and time. So far, Gothard has grown more than 20 types of for­got­ten ap­ple trees with Arkansas roots, in­clud­ing those dat­ing back to the 19th cen­tury, such as the Arkansas Black, Tull and Shan­non va­ri­eties.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a huge or­chard [with heir­loom va­ri­eties], but at farm­ers mar­kets they’ll get a good fol­low­ing,” he said. “I want to make sure th­ese va­ri­eties are avail­able.”

Gothard is part of a niche group of ap­ple en­thu­si­asts who sift through pub­lic doc­u­ments, news­pa­per clip­pings, cen­sus records and ref­er­ence books to find aban­doned or­chards — where some va­ri­eties might still grow to­day.

Ap­ple hun­ters, farm­ers and his­to­ri­ans know Arkansas’ ap­ple lore and are con­tin­u­ing the fruit’s legacy, in spite of chang­ing cli­mates, a

chal­leng­ing mar­ket and com­mer­cial­iza­tion.

For many years, at the end of the 19th cen­tury and into the 20th, Arkansas was a na­tional leader in ap­ple pro­duc­tion. About two-thirds of the $4 bil­lion ap­ple in­dus­try is now con­cen­trated in Wash­ing­ton state. The Pa­cific Coast state pro­duces 10 ma­jor va­ri­eties — led by the Red De­li­cious — ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Ap­ple As­so­ci­a­tion. An es­ti­mated 17,000 va­ri­eties of ap­ple trees once grew in North Amer­ica, and about 13,000 are con­sid­ered lost. In the book Old South­ern Ap­ples, his­to­rian Creighton Lee Cal­houn lists more than 1,800 recorded South­ern va­ri­eties be­fore 1928. About 500 va­ri­eties still ex­isted in 2011.

Dis­eases brought on by mono­cul­ture prac­tices, cli­mate change and the birth of in­dus­trial-scale agri­cul­ture in the Pa­cific North­west led to the demise of Arkansas or­chards. How­ever, many trees have un­ex­pect­edly sur­vived and en­thu­si­asts such as Gothard have taken to on­line mes­sage boards to share their find­ings with the world.

Two years ago, a once lost Arkansas ap­ple va­ri­ety was found in Wash­ing­ton state at Step­toe Butte State Park by a re­tired FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tor. David Ben­scoter, 62, a so-called “ap­ple de­tec­tive,” lo­cated what may be the only re­main­ing Arkansas Beauty tree. The va­ri­ety’s iden­tity was con­firmed in late Fe­bru­ary af­ter test­ing by U.S. sci­en­tists and food his­to­ri­ans.

Ben­scoter said he found the Arkansas Beauty about 8 miles from the old Hans­ford Nurs­ery, which later be­came the Vineland Nurs­ery in 1906. Ac­cord­ing to a Vineland Nurs­ery cat­a­log from 1912, the nurs­ery sold at least four va­ri­eties from Arkansas: the Elkhorn, Arkansas Black, the Benton County Beauty and the Arkansas Beauty. The Elkhorn and Benton County Beau­ties are con­sid­ered ex­tinct.

With some help from his son, Gothard soon reached out to the re­tired FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tor for a sam­ple for graft­ing. Gothard now has one of the only known Arkansas Beauty trees in Arkansas.

OZARK CASH CROP

In the span of 30 years, Arkansas ex­pe­ri­enced — more than any other state

— the boom and bust of the 19th-cen­tury ap­ple craze. The Ozark re­gion had ideal cli­mate, soil, rail­road ac­cess and plenty of or­chards to make it one of the lead­ing U.S. ap­ple pro­duc­ers. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. cen­sus data, 2 mil­lion trees cov­ered the state’s Ozark re­gion in 1890, and blos­somed to nearly 7 mil­lion over two decades. By 1910, Benton County alone had about 2.5 mil­lion ap­ple trees — more than any other county in the na­tion, in­clud­ing those in Wash­ing­ton state.

“This meant ev­ery­thing you would have seen at the time in those coun­ties were ap­ple or­chards,” said Curt R. Rom, 61, pro­fes­sor of hor­ti­cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Arkansas.

Ac­cord­ing to a May 1913 study — “Ap­ples and Peaches in the Ozark Re­gion” — by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, it was com­mon to see or­chards of 80 to 160 acres, and it was not un­usual for a sin­gle fam­ily farm to work 250- to 500-acre or­chards.

The cool cli­mate and heavy soils en­cour­aged healthy growth, and rail­road pro­mo­tion sparked the fruit’s ex­pan­sion.

“The rail­roads said all you had to do was plant a tree and pick fruit,” said Roy C. Rom (age 95 and Curt’s fa­ther), emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of hor­ti­cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Arkansas. “So large or­chard pro­duc­ers re­ally didn’t know what they were do­ing.”

A rep­u­ta­tion for poor ap­ple qual­ity also has­tened the demise of Arkansas ap­ples, Roy Rom said.

For mar­kets out­side North­west Arkansas, the rail­roads re­quired a tough ap­ple that wouldn’t bruise dur­ing travel and could be used for pro­cess­ing. The farm­ers grew Ben Davis ap­ple trees be­cause the fruits were tough as bricks.

As much as 75 per­cent of the trees in com­mer­cial or­chards were Ben Davis, ac­cord­ing to the 1913 study. Farm­ers were di­vided by the Ben Davis: some were drawn by the quan­tity of ap­ples they pro­duced, oth­ers re­fused to grow them be­cause they didn’t like the qual­ity of the fruit.

As years passed, farm­ers grew the same fruit in the same lo­ca­tion, which cre­ated a fa­vor­able en­vi­ron­ment for dis­ease and in­sects.

The rail­roads and farm­ers also fell into a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship, Rom said. With­out the rail­roads, sup­ply surged be­cause of a lack of lo­cal de­mand.

Other hur­dles for Ozark ap­ple farm­ers in­cluded Pro­hi­bi­tion, which cur­tailed pro­duc­tion of ap­ple brandy; the World Wars, which took a gen­er­a­tion of young farm­ers; and the Dust Bowl drought, Curt Rom said.

Around the same time, other states be­gan pro­duc­ing ap­ples. Wash­ing­ton state and the Pa­cific North­west re­gion had suit­able cli­mate and plenty of ir­ri­gated farm­land thanks to the new Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

Ac­cord­ing to 1960 cen­sus data, the num­ber of Arkansas ap­ple trees dropped to about 120,000.

“It’s a chang­ing and evolv­ing in­dus­try,” he said. “And I just think the in­dus­try evolved away from Arkansas and we could not com­pete. And when you’re a loser, you change to some­thing else or go broke.”

VAN­ZANT’S MAR­KET

When it comes to ap­ple grow­ing th­ese days, Steve Van­zant tells it like it is.

“I’m too stupid to quit,” he said.

Es­tab­lished in 1949 by his par­ents, Fred and Kahy­lene, Van­zant’s Mar­ket be­gan as just an ap­ple op­er­a­tion. To sur­vive, they di­ver­si­fied their or­chards to in­clude peaches, blue­ber­ries, grapes, straw­ber­ries, mel­ons and veg­eta­bles.

At this time of the year, the mar­ket is filled with peaches and to­ma­toes. But soon Van­zant and his fam­ily will be pick­ing some of the first Gala ap­ples of the new sea­son. (They pro­duce 23 va­ri­eties of peaches and 17 va­ri­eties of ap­ples.)

Rows and rows of yel­low­green ap­ples hung in the or­chards be­hind the mar­ket last week. Be­fore one of the trees, Van­zant grabbed one of the plump, orange-ish globes and took a bite.

“They’ll be ready in a week,” he said be­tween chews.

Van­zant, a sixth-gen­er­a­tion farmer, has sold most of his pro­duce out of his mar­ket in Low­ell. In sea­son, Van­zant said he sells peaches and ap­ples at nearby Harp’s stores.

Come Septem­ber his Arkansas Blacks, Wi­ne­saps and Jonathan’s will be ripe, among other older va­ri­eties not avail­able in most gro­cery stores.

CON­TIN­U­ING THE LEGACY

Black Ap­ple Cross­ing cidery sits in an ironic spot, owner Leo Or­pin said.

On Emma Street in Spring­dale, the cidery sits in a Ge­orge’s Chicken hatch­ery built in 1935. Af­ter the ap­ple bust, North­west Arkansas farm­ers razed their or­chards for chicken houses and raised poul­try for a new in­dus­try.

Af­ter decades of chicken growth, most of the ap­ple trees died or were bull­dozed, Curt Rom said.

The Spring­dale cidery own­ers ran into a prob­lem early on. The farm­ers who grew ap­ples in Arkansas couldn’t sup­ply Black Ap­ple Cross­ing with enough prod­uct for its hard cider.

“At one point we were scram­bling,” Or­pin said. “We reached out to Michi­gan, Wash­ing­ton [state], and then got ahold of some or­chards in south­ern Mis­souri.”

The ap­ple cidery opened in July 2015 and within a year it made its top sell­ers avail­able to busi­nesses in North­west Arkansas. Its prod­ucts in­clude straw­berry and lemon­grass in­fused ciders and more tra­di­tional op­tions, like the ex­tra-dry “Fitz.”

It’s 1904 cider is named af­ter the year Spring­dale ap­ples won top prizes at the World’s Fair in St. Louis (aka The Louisiana Pur­chase Ex­po­si­tion).

To­day marks its sec­ond year op­er­at­ing from Emma Street, and in cel­e­bra­tion of the cur­rent fruit sea­son, the mak­ers col­lab­o­rated on a lim­ited re­lease peach cider, with fruit from Van­zant’s Mar­ket.

Black Ap­ple Cross­ing has be­come Arkansas’ first com­mer­cial cidery. At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, many South­ern ap­ples didn’t make for good eat­ing. Pri­mar­ily, they were pro­cessed for brandies, vine­gars and ciders.

“We wanted to give our cus­tomer base kind of a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive,” Or­pin said. “At the same time, we’re in a cool spot where we can bring back the rich ap­ple his­tory of North­west Arkansas.”

AN AP­PLE CRU­SADE

Nearby the cidery is the Shiloh Mu­seum of Ozark His­tory, fea­tur­ing cat­a­logs and pho­tos of North­west Arkansas. Re­cently, Marie De­mer­oukas, pho­toarchivist and re­search li­brar­ian, has made find­ing the lost Bright­wa­ter ap­ple her cru­sade.

De­mer­oukas said she learned of the ap­ple at the North­west Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s new culi­nary school in Ben­tonville, aptly named Bright­wa­ter. Cu­ri­ous to learn more, she reached out to Guy Ames of Ames Or­chard & Nurs­ery, who reached out to Gothard, the heir­loom ap­ple en­thu­si­ast from Ar­morel. Both men searched through ar­chives, books and con­tacts, but found no signs of the Bright­wa­ter.

The be­lieved-to-be ex­tinct ap­ple is de­scribed in a June 1884 edi­tion of Gar­dener’s Monthly and Hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist as a “very de­sir­able ap­ple for that far down sec­tion of the coun­try.”

It wasn’t un­til she con­tacted an ar­chiv­ist at the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural Li­brary in Mary­land that she found a Bright­wa­ter clue. The ar­chiv­ist sent an in­dex card with an ex­cerpt from a 1892 let­ter by Ge­orge F. Ken­nan of Rogers.

“I be­lieve [the ap­ple] orig­i­nated at Bright­wa­ter Benton Co., Ark. and the tree was set by Enoch Groot in a very early day. Mr. A. Peel bought the farm soon af­ter the war and some 13 or 14 years ago he called my at­ten­tion to the ap­ple. I top grafted a few trees and fruited them and be­lieved it would be a valu­able ad­di­tion to our list. I give this state­ment at length be­cause it is in the nurs­eries and is cat­a­loged in a great many states and will doubtlessly be of in­ter­est to a great many planters as well as nurs­ery men.”

It’s where­abouts re­main un­known, the ap­ple hun­ters said.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER

Stephen Van­zant pol­ishes a Gala ap­ple Wed­nes­day at Van­zant Fruit Farms in Low­ell. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. cen­sus data, there were about 2.5 mil­lion ap­ple trees in Benton County in 1910, more than any other county in the na­tion.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER

A Gala ap­ple ripens on a tree at Van­zant Fruit Farms in Low­ell.

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