We’re familiar with deer hunters, truffle hunters and house hunters, but two retirees in the Pacific Northwest have found something else to track: vintage apples.
In their most fruitful season yet, David Benscoter and E.J. Brandt have uncovered 10 apple varieties believed to have been lost.
There were once 17,000 apple varieties in North America; it’s estimated that only 4,000 of those remain. But these fruit trees were once plentiful, dotting homesteader’s acreage as a vital source of food during lean times.
Many of these fruit orchards were planted after Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act in 1862, which granted 160 acres to any citizen for a small filing fee. This push to settle the western territory of the U.S. allowed many Americans, including former slaves, women and immigrants, to build a home and start a farm on their own land.
Benscoter, co-founder of The Lost Apple Project in Washington state, is a former FBI agent and IRS investigator. The retiree got into apple-hunting by pure happenstance: A friend with a disability asked for his help to pick fruit in an orchard behind her house, and he didn’t recognize any of the varieties he found.
Benscoter now spends his time hunting down apples long thought lost to history.
“It’s like a crime scene,” Benscoter told The New York Times. “You have to establish that the trees existed, and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow.”
Going apple pickin’
Benscoter shows no signs of vertigo as he cuts a few branches from a heritage apple tree. (Photo: The Lost Apple Project/Facebook)
Two-thirds of the $4 billion U.S. apple industry is based in Washington, but only 15 varieties account for 90% of the market, with McIntosh, Fuji, Gala and Red Delicious leading the way. But until industrial agriculture took over a century ago, apples had flourished in family orchards and farms throughout the Midwest, New England and the South.
The vintage apples the hunters are re-discovering aren’t grocery-store pretty with poetic names. Most of these vintage varieties, covered in spots and bumps, have funny names, like Limber Twig, the Rambo or Flushing Spitzenburg.
The team’s latests finds include the Gold Ridge; the Givens, also known as the Arkansas Baptist; the Sary Sinap, an ancient apple from Turkey; the Streaked Pippin; the Claribel and Butter Sweet of Pennsylvania, and the Fink. (You can learn more about the latest finds in their newsletter update.) That brings their total finds to 23 apple varieties.
“It was just one heck of a season. It was almost unbelievable. If we had found one apple or two apples a year in the past, we thought were were doing good. But we were getting one after another after another,” Brandt told Time magazine. “I don’t know how we’re going to keep up with that.”
But commercial growers aren’t so enchanted with these old-fashioned beauties. They believe there’s a reason these fruits faded into obscurity. “They’re hard to grow,” Mac Riggan explained to The New York Times. Riggan is the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh in central Washington, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees.
Older varieties can be more sensitive to travel, bruising easily, and can’t be stored for a long time. And in this modern economy, they simply don’t produce enough fruit to keep up with an international market. “Land costs money,” Riggan adds.
On the hunt
Brandt brandishes an apple, on the hunt for another almost-extinct varietal. (Photo: The Lost Apple Project/Facebook)
Brandt is the other founder of The Lost Apple Project. He’s a Vietnam veteran with a passion for history. The two men have journeyed through the Northwest trying to harvest those homesteader’s forgotten apples. Sometimes in a truck or all-terrain vehicle, oftentimes on foot, time is of the essence to capture these apples before they’re forever lost to housing developments or monoculture.
“To me, this area is a goldmine,” Brandt told the Associated Press. “I don’t want it lost in time. I want to give back to the people so that they can enjoy what our forefathers did.”
To do this, the two men work closely with the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Molalla, Oregon, for identification. Since you can’t exactly Google what variety an ancient apple is, the team pours over U.S. Department of Agriculture watercolors and dusty textbooks.
Scientists believe these old-school apples could teach us a few things about climate change and genetic diversity. “You have to have varieties that can last, that can grow, produce fruit, survive the heat and maybe survive the cold winter, depending on where you are,” Joanie Cooper, a botanist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, says. “I think that’s critical.”
If the apple is indeed considered “lost,” Brandt and Benscoter return to the scene to take cuttings that will eventually be grafted and planted in the conservancy’s orchard for future preservation.
“It’s a lot of footwork and a lot of book work and a lot of computer work. You talk to a lot of people,” Brandt reflects. “And with that type of information, you can zero in a little bit — and then after that, you just cross your fingers and say, ‘Maybe this will be a lost one.'”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published in November 2019.
Lost Apple Project hunts for vintage varieties
Amateur botanists with the Lost Apple Project seek to bring back heritage fruits in the Northwest U.S.