Guest Post — August 31, 2015 at 2:56 pm

GUEST POST: The Paradox of the Apple


This story arrived in my email inbox today from the most excellent group Local Harvest. It’s an important story about how our food supply cycles and our food demand cycles can be out of sync to the point where we literally throw away delicious, healthy, nutritious food and import the same food from other countries. In this case, the supply and demand cycles that are out of sync are those for apples.

What’s good about this essay is that it doesn’t just talk about the problem. The author, Rebecca Thistlethwaite from Farm Business Consulting and author of the books Farms With a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business and The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising & Selling, also points out things each of us can do to help address the issue.

I was so intrigued by the essay that I reached out to Local Harvest and they gave me permission to reprint it here. It is also available online HERE.

Here at LocalHarvest, we think a lot about the concept of local. Local is more than just geography and relationships. It is a statement about how we want to live in an increasingly globalized world. When I recently heard about this story of apples moving around the planet to serve our growing affection for alcoholic apple juice (hard cider) while millions of dollars of domestically grown dessert apples were being tossed out, I thought it was worth exploring. Why is this happening and how could a localized, regionally-based agricultural system rectify it?

In the spring of this year, there were reports of Washington state apples being dumped on the ground to rot because there was more supply than demand for these fresh eating apples and port disputes hampered exports. Problem #1 is excess supply of similar varieties of apples all ripe and ready to be eaten at the same time.

A college professor friend of mine who recently toured a large hard cider factory in Vermont informed me that the majority of apples they use to make their cider actually come from frozen apple juice concentrate originating in China. Not only is the Chinese apple juice concentrate cheaper and available year-round, but this cidery requires such apple volumes that it would have to buy up every single apple grown in New England to supply the demand they have (which is not going to happen). And most apple orchards in New England, just like Washington and the rest of the country, are growing sweet dessert apples for fresh markets, not bitter apples for hard cider or even cheap processing apples. Land, labor, and other inputs are just too great for most farmers to purposely grow processing apples in the US. It is just the culls that go for processing. Problem #2 is the lack of diverse apple orchards in this country growing bittersweet and bittersharp apples for hard cider (they were mostly eradicated during Prohibition). Problem #3 is that our love of sweet and hard apple juice is so great that we import vast quantities of frozen apple juice concentrate from around the globe. The demand is not where the supply is (which is true for many things Americans love from coffee to chocolate).

Thus tens of thousand of tons of domestic apples are being dumped due to oversupply and cheap Chinese apple juice concentrate is coming into the other side of the country to supply a large, nationally distributed hard cider manufacturer. Does this make sense? Why do we simultaneously export and then import the same crops, or in this case, waste crops and then import the same crops? Of course, it would take an entire economics lesson to tease out this distribution conundrum, but I thought at the very least we should be talking about it and maybe taking baby steps to remedy it. How as consumers can we insert ourselves into this socio-economic geo-political board game? Here are my ideas:

  1. Buy your local apples (and/or other produce) when it is in season. Buy extra to freeze, can, or dry so you can eat it during other times of the year when it is not in season. You can also easily make your own hard apple cider in a short time with very little fancy equipment. Check out this recipe from Mother Earth News HERE.
  2. Seek out cideries (or other food products) that utilize local, regional, or at least domestically-grown ingredients. Although LocalHarvest does not sell alcoholic beverages in our online store, many of our producers make hard cider, mead, and other farmstead spirits. If you type in the name of the product into the LocalHarvest search box, many of them will pop up.
  3. When you buy foods grown in other countries, look for the fair trade, organic, or other social and environmental labels to at least ensure some standards are met in their production and processing. Ideally buy those items that can’t be grown domestically or are not in season here. For me, that would be my daily essentials of coffee, dark chocolate, and the occasional dried mango, vanilla, and other spices. We want you to support good, ethical agriculture and food systems in other countries too.

Even though food has been transported around the globe for thousands of years, it makes little sense to have a system in which we both waste an ingredient and import it at the same time. We can be part of the solution by participating and supporting local and regional agriculture.

– Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Farm Business Consulting

Rebecca Thistlethwaite is the author of “Farms With a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business”, Chelsea Green 2012 and “The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising & Selling Ethical Meat”, 2015

[Photo by Anne C. Savage]