Where Have All the Apples Gone?

apple-1589874_1920-300x204 Where Have All the Apples Gone?

“Some 17,000 varieties of apples were grown in North America over the past last few centuries.”

One of the benefits of modern mass markets is supposed to be the proliferation of choices. The modern consumer can choose from so many things available on a variety of platforms, be it off or online. This ability to select from plenty is considered one of the marvels of modern economy.

However, there is another side to the matter that is not often explored. In their drive to provide abundance, mass markets suppress variety. When providing many choices, they tend to offer the same universal options everywhere. Far from enriching a culture, mass markets can impoverish it.

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Such a thesis might appear heretical to those who defend classic economic theory that affirms modern markets supply anything, anytime and anywhere. Such defenders would claim this availability represents an explosion not an implosion of culture.

Hard to Prove the Contrary

What complicates this debate is the preconception that pre-industrial markets found in Christian civilization were so limited. The overpowering efficiency of mass markets indicts both Christian civilization and pre-industrial society. Those who criticize modern markets are often forced into silence in the face of the overwhelming evidence of how modern production and distribution networks supply our needs.

Then suddenly, a straightforward and refreshing example appears that proves the contrary: Pre-industrial markets were not limited at all. In fact, there were incredibly rich.

The Apple: An Expressive Example

One very expressive example is that of the simple apple.

Apples have been bought and sold from time immemorial. By looking at how they are sold in pre-modern times and now, we can make a judgment on the matter.

As it stands now, we can buy apples anywhere during any season. In the off-season, apples can be shipped in from other parts of the world. Cold storage techniques extend the life of the apple for a good amount of time.

Modern Apples

Thus far, we can say modern apple markets do make apples available longer to a greater number of Americans all the time. However, the matter becomes more difficult when we look at exactly what is available to us.

The first thing that is notable is that most apples in America are not local apples. A full two-thirds of all apples are harvested in Washington State.

The second observation is that the varieties of apples available are very limited. In fact, some 90 percent of the market is made up of only 15 types. Of those, the Red Delicious apple occupies the top position. These choices are predetermined by producers who adjust them according to their needs of production, shipping and storage.

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Thus, while the availability of apples is great in industrial society, the variety is depressingly poor. Most people are given these same choices nationwide with rarely a local apple in sight.

Pre-industrial Apples

The comparison must then be made based on what the pre-industrial apple market looked like. The first fact is that that apples were grown all over the country with each region specializing in the apples that grew best in the area.

A recent New York Times article reports the second astonishing fact that some 17,000 varieties of apples were grown in North America over the past last few centuries.

There was an enormous variety, a wonder-world of apples, to suit every need and taste. While not everyone had access to all 17,000 varieties, no two regions experienced the same 15 modern choices. The choices were determined by those who lived in the locality. We can say that apple selection enriched the area and the culture.

Where Have All the Apples Gone?

In the face of these facts, we must then ask where all the apples have gone. We need to look at why we have been reduced to fifteen varieties in 90 percent of the cases. We need to know what has happened to the other 16,985 varieties not represented in nearly all supermarkets.

The good news is that many varieties are still around. They are raised in small orchards and sold at roadside stands and farmers markets. The bad news is that 13,000 varieties have disappeared forever and are no longer grown.

What killed these 13,000 varieties? Perhaps some blight or mysterious disease swept over the country in the early twentieth century?

The Industrialized Apple

The answer is very tragic. There was no blight. Mass markets killed these apple varieties.

When industrialization invaded agriculture at the beginning of last century, many small apple orchards, which were commonly part of small family farms, were pulled up. Only those varieties that could adapt well to industrial processes survived. Apples that were apt to bruise were not saved. Likewise, those which did not travel or store well were not valued. Still others failed to make the cut because they did not produce enough apples per tree.

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Over time, the 17,000 varieties once grown were largely reduced to the fifteen. Even these survivors are not safe from the relentless search to engineer the perfect apple. The key word is engineer since it is a scientific exercise to maximize return on investment not necessarily enhance the taste. New varieties like Cosmic Crisp are super-productive, store and travel better. They are gradually replacing the big 15. Some scientists are even trying to develop varieties that reduce the time needed to produce mature trees from years to months.

What Was Lost

However, in the race to produce the most profit-efficient apple, much apple culture was lost. A way of life was lost as the landscape changed.

Apples once grew all over the country. Regarding culture, the regional character of consumption was altered since many of the lost varieties grew best in the area, its climate and soil. Even the means of producing new varieties were lost since many of these came about by the chance cross pollination of neighboring orchards. A local apple could become part of the culture of a region since it was prized by the inhabitants as their own.

Even the names of varieties were picturesque and evocative of people and place. A 1905 book, The Apples of New York, lists numerous state varieties. We find Grimes Golden Apples described as “beautiful, rich, golden-yellow, attractive in form and excellent either for dessert or culinary use.” There is the Winter Banana Apple which is “large, clear pale yellow with beautiful contrasting pinkish-red blush, characteristically aromatic, of good dessert quality.” And what to think about the Twenty Ounce apple? It is “highly esteemed for home use, large, attractive, green becoming yellowish with broad strips and splashes of red, moderately tender, juicy.”

These 17,000 different tastes enriched the American apple scene and developed a healthy regionalism. These same apples also figured in apple products that likewise enhanced a locale and its traditions. They would lend their distinctive flavors to all sorts of variations of apple cider, vinegar, butter, brandy, strudel and the classic American apple pie.

It is amazing to think how much the simple apple added to our culture. It is sad to imagine how much was lost when the distinct flavors of 13,000 varieties have faded out of existence.

Not Only Apples

The influence of a product on culture is not limited to apples. In what can be called an organic society, there is a natural link between a locality, its people and products. This is contrary to the frenetic intemperance of a society that focuses only on money and efficiency with no connection to a locality or its people.

Thus, we should imagine a whole society where distinctive local foods, clothes and products are each represented by thousands of varieties. It is said, for example, that the flavor of local grit corn was so distinctive in the South that people could tell where they were by the taste of the grits.

No amount of marketing can replace truly organic foods that are rooted in a region and its tradition.

Did it Have to Happen?

Some might dismiss these considerations as nostalgic musing about the past that ignores modern day reality. They claim that the market may be brutal but nevertheless must be respected.

We would respond that the devastation of apples did not need to happen the way it did. Local cultures could have flourished with full respect for markets. There are certain niche markets like craft beers that are proof that the local can be highly competitive.

Indeed, we must also recognize that massive centralized markets rarely operate on purely fair market principles. Government subsidies, local tax privilege packages, burdensome socialist regulations made to benefit big suppliers and vast distribution systems have certainly helped keep market gigantic to the detriment of the small producer.

A Moral not Economic Problem

However, what devastated the apple market was much more a moral problem than an economic one. When people reject moral restraints and insist upon instant gratifications of their desires, it throws markets out of balance. It leads societies to forsake the natural restraining influence of family, faith and community that keep economies refreshingly local and impressively stable.

The breakdown of family and community especially since the sixties played a major role in this devastation. When individuals are no longer anchored in families and communities, there can be no true local economy since it must rest upon the work of generations and a reverence for place. People without roots choose the product that is most convenient or inexpensive.

People with roots are loyal to them. They naturally prefer products with which they have a link and participation as they are part of their history. People appreciate the distinctive local flavors that come from the soil, climate or their own inventiveness.

Above all, true localism consists of the human element. People have the joy of living together and sharing the things they love…including apples. This is what gives rise to the cultural treasures so amazingly expressed by 17,000 apple varieties.

  • Mark Kalpakgian

    Great points and very insightful. Thank you!

  • Brian Tideman

    Perhaps this article indicates what the new heaven and earth will be like when “we eat and dwell in our own houses/gardens” as several chapters in the New testament tell us. We will not only be participating in praise of our creator and loving Gold, we will actually be able to enjoy the variety inherent in his created order.

    • makutsi

      May this be a Freudian slip? Gold instead of God?

      • Margaret Jucksch Pumper

        I’m betting it was spellcheck on his “smart” phone!

  • m m

    Amazing observation. I read your book. You are spot on and thank you for your accurate, insightful and thought provoking commentary.

  • marlene

    I’ve been sadly wondering for decades where all the winesaps went…

    • Flame

      When I was growing up in a mid-Atlantic state, we had 3 winesap trees in the yard. They were wonderful to climb in addition to the fabulous apples — still my favorites. Last winesaps I ever encountered were in Oregon about 1978. I bought a few when I was there. A few years later, my friend was living in Oregon, and I asked if she could send me some. Little did we know that they have to pass some kind of ag inspection, so after many weeks, a box arrived in the mail with NO apples, some other rotted fruit, and some unshelled nuts.

      God willing, as I move to a climate better suited to apples than where I am now, I will find some winesaps and plant them!

      • marlene

        Awesome! I can feel your disappointment at the contents in the box. I live in the Northeast. Thanks for sharing your story.

        • Flame

          I was curious to know their availability, so I just did a search. I only explored 2 of several hits, but I found people in Nebraska and in Missouri who have the trees for sale, so they can still be grown. If you are in the NE, you probably get enough hours of cold for the trees to prosper — if you have a place to plant them. And I will be in the right zone also once I move.

          • marlene

            Thanks for the info. I will check it out. They can be planted on my son’s property where I can fill up my baskets and bring them home. Good luck on your move to the ‘winesap’ zone.

  • theapostles

    That’s how we human supposed to accomplish while we are on this journey.

    • B Flanagan

      Marlene, I live in Co Donegal Ireland. My house has an old orchard. I have loads of various apples from the old trees. Since retirement I have taken to making ‘apple tarts’ (your ‘ apple pie’). but the apples are hard to store, so out of season I tried buying big shapely cooking apples from the supermarket. What a disappointment! Those funny looking smallish apples from the old trees are the only ones that make a lovely pie. And some of our discerning visitors have noticed the difference with delight. Looking good means nothing. ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’

  • monkbiker

    There is another danger. When variety is reduced, the remaining species become increasingly vulnerable to attacks from insects and disease. These attacks could wipe out vast areas of the crops. Look what happened to elm trees. Look at what is happening to hemlocks. If there is a wide genetic variation, a disease or insect that strikes one species may not attack others.

    • Good point. But soon we’ll probably have Roundup Ready® Apples, which nothing — disease, insect, animal, or human — will want to eat.

    • Excellent point!

  • Marlene

    We have wild apple trees planted naturally by cows back in the 1920’s. These apple trees may not be the most beautiful perfectly formed apples found in the stores, but they taste amazingly sweet! They put store-bought industrialized apples to shame. So much for man vs. nature! By the way, we don’t know the names of our apples, nobody around here knows either. The names have been lost in time.

  • Bart

    And I thought pink ladies, honey crisps and Fujis were just the only good ones worth producing.

  • dennodog

    I’ve been wondering for a few decades why apple taste so bland and their textures a nasty.

  • MairinT

    My grandparents garden in Dublin (Ireland) had Cox’s Pippins, Beauty of Bath and more…. When my husband and I built our first house in Ireland we planted a small orchard of carefully selected varieties of apples to cover a wider part of the year, including real sour cooking apples. Sadly when we sold our house to emigrate the new owner ripped up the trees – not bothered to mow around them ! One cannot find cooking apples in either Canada or here in Australia and the eating apples are, as the article above explains, limited to, at the most, 5 varieties, none with the real apple flavours we used to have.

  • Mynickelsworth

    When I grew up the big apple for that area was the Round Top. Trees grew big and were loaded with apples. I ate them raw and with the peel (no fear of all the insectcides nor were they covered by a thick coat of ‘plastic’ to protect the surface.
    We ate them raw, cooked and canned. We even stored them and kept the over the winters (which were not warm). I walked to school as a 8 or 9 year old, in snow 6 to 8 inches deep with ‘oil cloth’ wrapped around my legs to keep the snow from getting into my shoes.
    The Round Top was juicy. Most, if not all, the present available apples are dry in comparison. The nearest thing to the Round Top I have found in the restricted list is the McIntosh. I had some apple trees, after I retired, and the best variety was the Red Rome. They were big and juicy. Sometimes you can find a Red Rome but they are few and have been poisoned by insecticide and diseases as well as being covered by the plastic cover. Unfortunately my last remaining tree died a few year ago.

    • Black Swan

      I miss the Red Rome, too. They were sometimes called “The Baker’s Buddy”, but I liked them for plain old eating. They were easy to peel if you wanted to, and my then-young son was able to peel an entire Rome apple in one long strip. But the peel tasted fine, too, no bitterness or sharpness. I haven’t seen one in a store, or anywhere else, in years.

      We tried to grow an early variety called Irish Peach where I live, but it died after four or five years without ever growing an apple. I think our climate was too humid for it. But an old apple tree of unknown variety that was already growing out back when we moved here produced many apples for several more years, and only died after it was struck by lightning.

  • Patrick Carriveau

    My father planted a Beverly Hills apple tree in our yard in Los Angeles. We had wonderful sweet/tart apples all my childhood. Kids coming back from the beach would amble up to the fence and pick a snack. (zones 9b through 10b).

  • And as Amazon.com, WalMart, Google, etc., continue to gobble up smaller competitors — including already gigantic ones — this trend will accelerate. Whereas, in the old days, monopolies made prices go up, now they are making them go down, and replacing humans with robots, driverless cars, drone delivery, etc.

  • CW

    “Those who criticize modern markets are often forced into silence in the face of the overwhelming evidence of how modern production and distribution networks supply our needs.”

    And into complacency. Most do not understand that this is where government control will inevitably get stronger. They are now, whether one admits it or not, controlling what you “eat”. It ravages local culture. It is not about making money or enough to live on (and well) it is about “more”.

    That is why selling our farm land to foreign companies, i.e. governments is literally playing with the “devil”. We have already handed over our education, health care, life choices to controlling entities.

    What the Church has already handed over, willingly, to such entities let them keep. The Church should be investing in farm land.

  • Human Being

    Where is Johnny Appleseed when you need him?

  • Mary George

    Imagine over 17,000 varieties of the beautiful apple. God our Father in Heaven is amazing.Our creator and the wondrous inventions of his.Case in point.The beautiful giraffe.The playful sea otter.The loving eyes of a dog.The emotion called love that transcends everything.Jesus loved us enough to take the physical and mental tortures that he suffered on the days before and on the day of his crucifixion onto himself.God our Father and Jesus’ father loved us enough to put up his only begotten son for us.The gift is for everyone that will accept it.

  • Linda Olivas

    Is there a way to bring back he 17,000 varieties of apples that were lost?

  • Bailey

    Amazing. So little thought goes into the outcome of so called progress.
    It is the same with cottage industries that get swallowed up by huge markets or industries– like women running small local day care in neighborhood whee everyone knows each other and then teacher’ s union sets its sights on claiming those children in universal preschool and destroying a community that is bonding.

  • PatriciaFraide

    Before having to give up a large property close to Palm Springs, CA, my husband did some research and found two low chill hour, apples, suitable for the hot desert. In a matter of three years they were producing wonderful apples. One was called Desert Gold and I can’t remember to other. Each year they grew to a larger size and became something we looked forward to. He also wonderful varieties of peaches, nectarines, and apricots. They were all amazingly sweet and juicy! Of course our small orchard included citrus, oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines. We also had an abundance of two varieties of figs. It was a beautiful little Oasis in the hot desert. Due to health we had to give it all up and move to Northern Nevada to live with my daughter and family. To our delight, the backyard of their new home had a number of fruit trees, pear, apple, cherry, quince, peach, and plum. I don’t know the names, but they are delicious. Homegrown fruit and veggies are light-years away from store bought chit in their taste! It is truly a great loss in not only flavor and being really organic, but also the loss of the joy that comes with the consumption and satisfaction of growing your own foodstuffs. Thank you for this thoughtful article! So much is lost with the mass production of food and other products.


    It’s not just the apples but one thing I used to really enjoy when traveling was seeing all of the different types of shops, eating different foods and learning about the different cities, states or countries we’ve been to. Even in China, we saw McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, KFC. We were so disappointed because it makes everything so mundane. One thing about eating foods from other places is that when you prepare them at home, it takes you back to that lovely vacation you took. . . . now, everything is pretty much the same wherever you go. . . . very, very sad.

  • Randall J Milburn

    What is the source of this data? 14,000 seems a bit extreme.

  • Joe

    Great article – but nothing is mentioned to rectify the problem. What can be done? I am frequently struck with feeling powerless against the evils of modernism – are we to start an apple consortium to restore the diversity of apples? What are we called to do?

  • Lisa Brigance

    My husband and sons and I used to pick cortland apples in Richland, MI at a farm. They closed. I never see Cortland apples anywhere to buy…and wondering if this is one of the apples we have lost forever due to greed. So very sad.