The U.S. is the second largest producer of apples in the world, and Americans eat more apples than any other fruit except bananas. Red Delicious and Grannysmith are ubiquitous in the U.S. And Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and Jonagold, among many others, are having their moment. So you might think that these sweet apple varieties are native to North America, but actually, before the Europeans arrived, one could only find sour crab apples on the continent.
In the latest episode of How Does It Grow?, a first-of-its-kind food education series that shares the stories of our food from field to fork, host Nicole Jolly offers up many interesting facts about the 7,500 varieties of apples that are grown in the world.
Jolly takes us to Middlefield, Connecticut, home to one of the oldest apple orchards in the country, to teach us about apples. The Lyman Family has owned this orchard since 1741. They bought the land directly from King George. Today, the ninth generation of Lyman's operates this 100-acre orchard. That's 27,500 trees growing 30 varieties of apples. The lifespan of an apple tree can be as short as 20 years and as long as 100.
Growing apples is not as easy as you might think. Because each apple seed is genetically unique, a Honeycrisp apple seed, for example, will not produce Honeycrisp apples. This is a problem for farmers trying to grow a specific variety of apple. So, growers use a technique called grafting, whereby they take a bud from the variety of apple they want to grow and insert it into the stock of a young apple tree to ensure that they get the variety they want.
Jolly also talks about the importance of pruning, cross-pollination, bees, culling and integrated pest management. The harvest begins in early August with the earliest varieties and finishes in late October. Harvesting is labor-intensive and every year a crew comes—some have been coming for 20 years—from Jamaica to harvest the Lyman's apples. Some of the harvested apples go into low-oxygen storage, which "kind of puts the apples to sleep, so that they are available to eat the whole year round," says Jolly. Apples are a nutritious and versatile food. But, Jolly cautions, almost all of the vitamins and fiber are in the peel, "so put down those peelers!"
The episode was made in partnership with Red Tomato, a nonprofit that works to deliver fresh, great tasting produce while cultivating a more sustainable, ethical food system.
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By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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