Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The local apple of our eye

"Cheap imports may benefit United States consumers, but they're about as welcome as maggots to [U.S. apple growers].” -- Washington Times (Dec. 25, 1998)

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Curried Vegetable Bisque, is a wonderful soup with an unusual ingredient. How many soups do you know that use five cups of chopped apples?

With the Johnny Appleseed and “Mom and apple pie” folklore in this country, few fruits seem as “American” as the apple. So many of us might be surprised to learn that the United States imports most of its apple juice concentrate, and we may be keeping the doctor away with imported fresh apples soon.

Since the early 1990s China has been the world’s biggest apple grower. “Spurred by agrarian and land use reforms, and financed in part by the Chinese central government and Japan, Chinese growers initiated a massive apple tree-planting program in the late 1970s that continues today. By 1997, China produced more than four times as many apples as the United States. . . . When millions of Chinese apple trees began to bear fruit in the early 1980s, the Chinese government invested in equipment and an infrastructure to produce huge volumes of apple juice concentrate.”

Compared to foods like corn or wheat, in which farm machines can do most of the work, apples are a labor-intensive crop. High population countries like China can supply that labor cheaply, allowing them to sell more apples for less. “It is estimated that China’s average apple prices are about 40 percent lower than the world average price.” Lower costs of processing the apples into juice compound the savings.

As a result, U.S. growers are offered so little for their apples that it may not be worth picking them. A 2000 New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets press release describes the situation: “In 1998, juice processors only offered 3 cents per pound for juice apples from New York orchards. It’s estimated that growers’ costs were 4 to 4.5 cents per pound to harvest and market those apples. Historically, juice apple prices in New York have been 6 to 8 cents per pound.” At 3 cents per pound, the apples might as well rot on the tree.

China’s rock-bottom juice prices have led to accusations -- denied by the Chinese -- of export dumping: selling products abroad for less than the cost of their production. Most Chinese non-frozen apple juice concentrate is taxed with extra anti-dumping duties as high as 52 percent.

The U.S. Apple Association is calling on the U.S. Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission to extend for five years those import duties currently in place, arguing that “elimination of the antidumping order, and the associated duties, will encourage more Chinese apple juice concentrate to enter the U.S. market, causing prices to decline and harming the few remaining apple juice concentrate producers still operating in the United States. The loss of domestic concentrate producers would also force juice apple prices lower and put an even greater economic strain on America's apple growers.”

Lest this news tempt any of us Americans to start throwing rotten apples, we must acknowledge that when it comes to export dumping the U.S. is one of the worst global offenders. The case of subsidized U.S. corn undercutting farmers in Mexico is notorious: here are links to just a couple of articles about it from Oxfam and the New York Times; see also Mennonite Central Committee’s 17-minute video, “Corn, Coffee and the Cost of Globalization,” which may be borrowed through the MCC Resource Catalog.

Even when it comes to apples, Mexico is investigating reports of U.S. dumping of fresh Red and Golden Delicious fruit.

These days China is seeking to sell not just juice but fresh apples to the United States. American apple growers argue such a move would “cause depressed apple prices which would force a significant number of [U.S.] apple growers and marketers into bankruptcy.”

Many of us enjoy the fruits of our own backyard trees -- like the one patiently waiting for spring outside my office window. But I hate to imagine the day when our supermarkets carry nothing but imported apples.

It’s certainly possible. In the January/February 2006 issue of World Ark magazine, Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute cites the example of Britain:

“As recently as 1965, Britain was largely self-sufficient in dessert apples (apples for direct consumption, not canning or baking). This self-reliance depended in part on the production of a wide diversity of apples—there are over 2,000 varieties in the National Collection of the United Kingdom—that ripened and were harvested throughout the year. . . . British orchards are now dominated by two or three ‘commercially desirable’ varieties with a relatively narrow harvest season, crippling the potential to regain self-sufficiency. Today, only 25 percent of the apples eaten in Britain are home-grown.”

Here in Corvallis, just one woman at our indoor farmer’s market has been offering fresh local apples this winter. Hers is one of the tiny no-name market farms, or at least I don’t know its name. Besides two apple varieties she sells a few vegetables -- I bought parsley and a couple softball-sized heads of cabbage from her last Saturday -- plus apple cider and utterly delectable homemade apple handpies.

The first week I saw the handpies I figured I better try one, and as I stood munching it before biking back home in the rain, the woman came to ask me how I liked it. They’re trying to determine whether these treats are worth making to sell, she said. The implicit understanding: in addition to sales of fresh apples and vegetables, this family is looking for ways to make their little farm profitable.

The following market week I noticed that she’d taken the handpie price down a quarter.

Can of apple juice concentrate at a typical supermarket: $0.69-1.29
Half gallon jug of local apple cider from a farmer’s market: $3-4
Keeping local farmers in business: What’s it worth to you?


At 10:21 AM, Blogger Alanna said...

Wow - the soup somehow made it to the top of the MAKE NOW list. But you might want to make special note how much it makes -- 20 cups is alot, I'll have to check my big stockpot.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Cathleen said...

You're right about the large yield! But note that this soup freezes well, so it's a good time-saver in that way. I like to freeze soups like this in individual-sized containers. My husband Dave takes them to work at least once per week, and having several different kinds on hand offers a nice variety.

In some ways Curried Vegetable Bisque is best made in late summer/early fall, or whenever red peppers are abundant. During that period I've learned to freeze red peppers for this soup as well as green peppers for winter chilis and enchiladas.

To freeze peppers, just remove the stem, white membrane and seeds, chop, spread in a thin layer on a baking sheet or 9 x 13 pan, and freeze. Once frozen, scoop into plastic bags; the loose chunks are easy to take out later as needed. Considering the price of unseasonal peppers, it's well worth the freezer space!

Thanks for writing.

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Alanna said...

The Trader Joe's frozen peppers are quite good -- a pound for $2 which is incredible when the grocery is charging $1.50 each. I did some price-per-pound math on vegetable for awhile, peppers (except the green ones) were among the most expensive of all.


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