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Eat Local, But…

Don’t Miss Out on the World’s Best Apples

Photos: David Barbrack

All across the USA, the 2012 apple harvest is underway, and it’s a decidedly mixed bag this year. Bad weather in some key growing regions has resulted in major apple shortages. Michigan will be lucky to harvest 5 percent of its usual fall crop. The state of New York will only bring in about half of its typical autumn apple haul.

The good news is the state of Washington was blessed with outstanding weather this growing season, and the world’s best apples are hitting store shelves now and will be in abundant supply throughout the year. Washington produces about 65 percent of the apples grown in the U.S. every year. The percentage this year will probably be even higher.

The Food Channel recently toured the orchards and production facilities of the Rainier Fruit Co., growers of apples, blueberries, cherries, pears and other fruits that thrive in the high desert climate of central Washington.

Ideal climate

The combination of warm days and cool nights in this key growing region brings out the best of nature, especially when it comes to apples. But it takes a lot of hard work, too, and we were witness to that on our tour. We saw how quickly, but carefully, apples are picked from the orchards’ trellised trees, bagged and gently placed into the big, square wooden bins so as not to bruise the delicate fruit.

We met with Mark Zirkle, president of Rainier Fruit, and fifth generation fruit grower. Rainier is no giant corporate farming organization. It’s a family-owned company that’s been growing apples in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains for more than a century.

Rainier ships fresh apples across the U.S. and indeed all over the world. We asked Zirkle if the now-mainstream trend of Eating Local has had an impact on the company’s business.

“We actually encourage people to eat local, and to support their local farmers,” Zirkle says. “But when winter comes, and the supply of locally-grown apples runs out, check out the apples grown in Washington State.”

Zirkle also recommends that consumers try new varieties of apples that have been developed in recent years.

Hard to beat a honeycrisp

One variety that has become a real favorite across the U.S. is honeycrisp (pictured below). We sampled several apple varieties while in Washington and found the sweet, juicy flavor and crisp bite of the Honeycrisp apple to be simply sublime. It’s become our top pick. Other newcomers you might want to look for in your local grocery store include Lady Alice, a more tart variety (exclusive to Rainier and named for Mark’s grandmother), and the Junami, a tangy-tasting apple with a really crunchy bite. You can visit the Rainier website to learn more about the many apple varieties the company offers.

Many of Rainier’s apple varieties are harvested in late summer and early fall, and kept “asleep” in controlled atmosphere facilities where they’re carefully monitored. Then they’re shipped to stores beginning in the frigid winter months of January and February, when local apples are often unavailable. For some varieties, the flavor of the apple actually matures and sweetens during this waiting period, according to Zirkle.

During our tour, we asked about the use of pesticides in the growing of apples, as that particular fruit has often been cited as one of the foods that consumers should opt to buy organic.

About 20 percent of Rainier’s apples are grown organically, Zirkle says, but of the remainder that are grown conventionally, the company uses what he calls “soft” techniques for pest control. “What we use to keep the bugs away dissipates very quickly,” he says. “We’re adding more organic orchards every year to meet the growing consumer demand, but we try to use natural methods whenever we can in all our orchards. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to eat any apple we grow here.”

There’s considerable science to support Zirkle’s confidence in his company’s produce. An Expert Panel Report commissioned by the Alliance for Food & Farming reviewed the claim by some that organically grown produce is safer and more nutritionally beneficial than conventionally grown produce. What the panel found is that there is no current scientific data convincing enough to support this claim.

Still keeps the doc away

New studies have shown that the old saw about “an apple a day” really does keep the doctor at bay, offering a host of health benefits against things like cancer and heart disease.

Autumn gets most everyone in the mood for crisp, juicy apples you can bite right into. But the chill in the air also reminds us of the many ways you can use apples in baking and in all kinds of warm and wonderful recipes. Scroll down for links to some of our favorite fall apple recipes.

Apples are one of the things we love about fall, and whether or not you like to buy them locally where you live, you really shouldn’t deprive yourself of enjoying some of the best apples on the planet: Washington State Apples.