9/20/2014

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Field Notes

An industry that's the apple of Washington's eye

It all started in 1826.

Emilius Simpson was in London at a dinner party in his honor. He was the head of the Pacific Coast trade for the Hudson Bay Company and was getting ready to visit his cousin who was the governor of what is now Vancouver.

A woman at the party, having finished her apple dessert, took five of the seeds, wrapped them in a napkin and gave them to Simpson, asking that he plant them when he arrived on the other side of the world.

That November, Simpson and his cousin were having dinner with Dr. John McLoughlin who would later be known as the Father of Oregon.

During dinner, Simpson took out the seeds and presented them. They were planted the following year, though it wasn’t until 1830 that the tree first bore fruit – producing one apple. It’s not known how long the other trees lasted, though it's assumed they didn't stay with us all that long.

On the other hand, while most apple trees tend to live around 60 years, this one - now known as The Old Apple Tree - has been producing ever since – more than 180 years.

While it’s not one hundred percent certain, the tree is considered the first apple tree in the Northwest and probably all along the West Coast. It has survived floods, storms, highway construction and even a near-death experience at the chopper’s block.

It is, without a doubt, considered the start (the foretree?) of Washington’s storied apple industry.

A report last year funded by the Washington Apple Commission estimated that the industry contributes some $7 billion in direct, indirect and induced economic activity, employing about 60,000 people.

That’s a lot of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink and Cameo apples (the nine most popular types grown in the state. In case you were wondering, there are approximately 7,500 varieties of apples grown around the world).

Nearly 12 billion apples are picked by hand (no machines to harvest apples) each year. If they were placed side by side, they would circle the globe 29 times. The average consumer in the United States eats 19 pounds of apples a year.

You can learn the most amazing things with just a little bit of research.

“Growers, packers, processors and marketers of Washington apples are optimistic and growth oriented,” said the report. “Their contributions to the Washington economy are very significant.”

The report concluded all the good news for apple growers has had other rewards for the state: everything from research grants to housing to scholarships and grants.

On Saturday, the modest seeds that led to a tree that led to an apple that led to a multi-billion dollar industry will be celebrated.

It’s the Old Apple Tree Festival at the Old Apple Tree Park in Vancouver.

It’s a festival about apple cider and apple-theme named bands and music and stands and fun. There are certainly worse ways to spend the afternoon.

Here’s the thing.

What started as a woman flirting with a sailor who was getting ready for assignment in the still fairly-unknown world (remember – by the time Simpson got there, Lewis and Clark had not been long gone from the area) has turned into an industry that provides this country with one of its iconic symbols.

It’s hard to imagine more that has come from less.

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