Kent Whealy’s Speech [Part I] at the Land Institute September 26, 2010: The Documenting of Heritage Apples



[Please note that this is taken from Part I of the talk that Kent Whealy, co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, gave at the 2010 Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas on September 26th, 2010.]

During the time that I have with you today, I want to first describe everything that was involved as I put the Historic Orchard into place at Seed Savers, which today contains about 700 varieties of pre-1900 apples. Those efforts more than two decades ago have led to the major six-volume book I am currently editing which will document more than 13,000 varieties of apples mentioned in U.S. literature during the last two centuries, and which will also be illustrated with 3,500 watercolors of those apples. Then I want to briefly describe some of the foundation work I am currently involve in as a trustee of the Ceres Trust, which is mainly attempting to empower organic agriculture.

And finally, I want to deliver a vital speech about one particularly invaluable and irreplaceable collection of genetic resources that is needlessly and systematically being taken away from gardeners and farmers, which will be especially damaging to organic growers and could diminish the entire organic movement in the U.S. [See Part II]

In June of 1985 I was one of the speakers at the Annual Meeting of ALHFAM which was held at Colonial Williamsburg. ALHFAM stands for the Association of Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums, so those are the folks who run the all of the period and ethnic gardens and farms across the U.S. The other non-ALHAM speakers at the conference besides myself were the late Dr. Louis Bass, (Director of the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado), Cary Fowler (at that time with the Rural Advancement Fund, whose current activities involving the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will be described shortly), and the late Dr. Robert Becker, Associate Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University, whose office was at the Geneva (New York) Agricultural Experiment Station.

That evening over drinks at the Clowning Tavern there in Colonial Williamsburg, Robert Becker told me that he was deeply concerned because Dr. Roger Way’s vast collection of apples was being cut down right then. For 35 years Roger Way was the USDA’s curator for apples, and during that time he amassed and authenticated a collection of 1,500 different apples and was keeping two full-sized trees of each. At that time the USDA was in the process of putting together its National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Apples and American Grapes there in Geneva, and was attempting to inventory all of the collections of apples in the U.S. Besides Roger Way’s collection, there was a field planting at the Quarantine Station in Glendale, Maryland that contained 1,100 apples that various breeders had imported from foreign countries over the years. They were also inventorying the collections held at all of the Plant Introduction Stations across the U.S. – each state used to have its own Agricultural Experiment Station, as they were called then, where varieties of fruits and vegetables were bred specifically for the growers and conditions of their State. In addition to all of that, there were also several large private collections of apples.

In the end, the USDA’s inventory identified about 5,000 different apples. Their goal was to develop a virus-free Clonal Repository containing 2,500 varieties, only about half of the available cultivars. Each was screened for viruses and then “heat treated” to produce virus-free stock for planting in the permanent repository. Cuttings were forced at high temperatures to grow quickly, so quickly that the tip of the shoot actually outgrows the viruses within it. Tip cuttings were then taken and re-grown, before being re-tested for any remaining viruses. Phil Forsline, the project’s Director, thought it would take 8-10 years to complete the process for all 2,500 varieties. This was in 1987 and they were about half way through the project at that point.

A holding orchard had been developed that included all of Roger Way’s collection, with two trees of each variety grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks, and then his collection of two full-sized trees of 1,500 apples was cut down. So, at that point Dr. Way’s collection went from two full sized trees of each, to essentially two branches. Similarly, the Glendale collection of 1,100 cultivars at the Quarantine Station was also grafted onto two dwarf rootstocks, before that collection was cut down. In addition, other varieties that Roger Way had selected were brought into the holding orchard from the Agricultural Experiment Stations in many of the States, and also from several large private apple collections.

The user group for the USDA’s Clonal Repository was to be apple breeders, so the collection was weighted heavily with varieties that have commercial characteristics and potential, and also as many wild species as possible which will hopefully contain the disease resistances that breeders are expected to need in the future. (There are 36 wild species of apples in the world, depending on which taxonomists you read.) So the USDA was looking almost entirely for varieties with either commercial characteristics or disease resistance, and was not concerned at all with their histories. Seed Savers Exchange, on the other hand, has always valued cultural history as highly as the plants themselves, so I decided to use that window of availability to put a Historic Orchard of nineteenth century apples into place at Heritage Farm. The USDA’s holding orchard was tentatively scheduled to be destroyed in 1992, so I had about five years.

During the next few years, I made several trips to visit Robert and Fay Becker at their home in Rushville, New York. In September of 1986, Robert took my son Aaron and me on a tour of the holding orchard while it was in full fruit. Robert took out his pocket knife and we walked up and down those long rows of dwarf apples, tasting variety after luscious variety until we were all so full that we couldn’t eat another bite. Each of the flavors was quite different and often so intense. As Mas Masamoto would say, that was one of the greatest orgasmic food experiences of my life. Robert Becker also took me to meet Dr. Roger Way and Dr. Robert Lamb (who was breeding scab resistant apples) and Phil Forsline. Each of them promised their support as I put Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard into place, including scionwood from any of the cultivars in the holding orchard.

At that point I didn’t have a good idea of what existed in the 19th century and before. Robert Becker had an extensive personal library, which his father had started. I was expecting to spend a year or more compiling my own computer inventory of historic apple varieties, using all of the pomological texts in Robert’s library. But then Dr. Way gave me his dog-eared extra copy of Nomenclature of the Apple by W. H. Ragan (and T. T. Lyon). That book turned out to be the life’s work of both men, and contains the names and a brief table of characteristics for more than 7,000 apple varieties mentioned in U.S. literature from 1804-1904. They even tried to sort out synonyms. So, using Ragan as my guide, I was able to scan the USDA’s inventory and other lists of collections to determine which were historic varieties that existed before 1904.

The widely quoted statement that “There were 7,000 named varieties of apples available in the U.S. in 1900” is based on Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple. But how many of those historic varieties were actually still available? In addition to the 5,000 apples in the USDA’s inventory, I also traveled to several of the largest private apple collections in the U.S. That included a trip to Virginia in 1986 to meet Dr. Elwood Fisher, Professor of Biology at James Madison University, who was keeping a collection of 900 apples. Dr. Fisher spent 16 years searching for old fruit varieties in Virginia and the surrounding states, and discovered many old European apples and pears that had come into the Virginia Colonies, some dating back into the 1500s. Another trip took me to Old Sturbridge Village to meet Andy Baker who was maintaining 120 apples in their Davenport Preservation Orchard. I also had all of Seed Savers’ Members to draw on, especially the collection of 450 apples being kept by the late Charles Estep in California. Also, the original edition of my Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory was published in 1989, so I had just finished compiling the descriptions of about 800 apples that were commercially available right then from mail-order nurseries across the U.S.

In the end, out of more than 7,000 apple varieties listed by Ragan, I was only able to find about 700 that were still available from any of those sources – only 10% of the apples known in 1904 existed less than a century later. During the winter and spring of 1989, David Sliva (the first Orchard Manager I hired) supervised a grafting crew that made four benchgrafts of 277 historic apples – twice as many as we would actually need in order to cover any possible losses – two on dwarf rootstock for the display orchard and two others on semi-dwarfing rootstock to be planted in trellised rows as backups. That summer all of those benchgrafts were planted into a holding nursery where we could protect them, and the first plantings into Seed Savers Historic Orchard were made in the following spring in 1990. That same process of making hundreds of benchgrafts each winter went on for several years.

Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard is surrounded by large wooded acreages containing heavy populations of deer. Those of you who live out in the country in northern areas know that during the depths of the winter, deer tend to herd up. A couple of winters earlier, a herd containing 170 deer was counted just a couple of miles from the orchard site, and deer eat apple trees like they were candy. So, during the summer of 1989, four of my Amish friends spent three weeks constructing 3,500’ of 8’ tall deer fence around the 7-acre orchard site. The Amishmen also built a log gatehouse at the orchard’s entrance, using the cores of Red Oak veneer logs. A gravel road and small gravel parking lot completed the Historic Orchard, which is located in a strikingly picturesque upland meadow. Over the years, Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard has become the largest public display of apples in the U.S.

More recently, an apple collector named Dan Bussey helped me extensively with the grafting needed to maintain Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard. Dan is keeping his own orchard of about 400 varieties and is also a skilled cider maker whose apple brandy is first-rate and continues to improve. For the last 20 years, Dan has essentially been enlarging on Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple. Dan’s extensive research has greatly expanded the varietal descriptions from the century of pomological literature covered by Ragan (1804-1904), and he has also added descriptions for all of the varieties that have appeared in the literature from 1904 to the present. Instead of Ragan’s brief and cryptic table of the characteristics of 7,000 apples, Dan has written comprehensive descriptions for more than 13,000 apples. The text that I am currently editing is 1,200 pages long.

Over the years my genetic preservation projects at Seed Savers have required repeated visits to the USDA’s National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, especially to its Special Collections which includes the largest collection of seed catalogs in the U.S. Also housed there is a virtually unknown collection of more than 7,000 life-sized watercolors of 38 families of fruits, including 3,500 watercolors of apples. More than 50 Department of Agriculture illustrators created this massive record of new fruit introductions. This was before the widespread use of color photography, from roughly 1860 through the 1920s. Most of the illustrators were women who were painting watercolor portraits of ripe, perfect fruits that were being sent from all over the country.

Scanning and proper storage of those watercolors has long been a top priority of the staff at Special Collections, but ongoing cuts have steadily eaten away their budgets, even more so recently. About a year ago I became a trustee of the Ceres Trust – Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture. A substantial grant from the Ceres Trust is currently making possible high-quality scans of the entire collection of 7,000 watercolors. Dan Bussey’s 13,000 apple descriptions will most certainly include virtually all of those watercolors of apples. So I will be editing 1,200 pages of text and then adding about 3,500 life-sized watercolors of apples. Right now the estimates are that the book will be a boxed set of six 425-page volumes. Any of you who are familiar with the classic pomological texts of the last century and a half, know that virtually all are illustrated only with line drawings of cross-sections of apples. These six volumes with all of their life-sized illustrations in color will be greatest identification tool that apple enthusiasts have ever known. I am deeply pleased that the Ceres Trust is enabling this project, because that huge collection of watercolors of fruits is a national treasure, and must be protected.

Some of the other grants by the Ceres Trust are in support of documentary films, such as Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. That film by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater has been shown at 53 film festivals in 20 countries, and has received 15 awards. Living Downstream, a film by Chanda Chevannes and the Peoples Picture Company, is based on Sandra Steingraber’s book Living Downstream. As I said yesterday, we are deeply pleased to also be supporting the Steingraber Speaker Series, a program that helps spread Sandra’s message more widely by paying her honorarium for groups that otherwise couldn’t afford to do so. The Vanishing of the Bees is a film by Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, which deals with Colony Collapse Disorder. In France the bees came back after a class of chemicals called nicotinoides was banned. The chemical corporations here in the U.S. are so powerful that getting any chemical banned is extremely difficult, but the Ceres Trust is partnering with Pesticide Action Network and with Beyond Pesticides in an attempt to do exactly that.

Another major grant program for the Ceres Trust is our Organic Research Initiative which is supporting organic research at universities throughout the Upper Midwest. 2009 was the program’s first year, and we funded 13 three-year research programs of up to $180,000 to be spread over three years. We expect to fund a similar number of research proposals each year. Last year was also the first year for our Graduate Student Research Scholarships which provided $10,000 grants to 10 grad students doing their thesis on an organic topic, and we also expect to fund a similar number each year.

As you can see, the Ceres Trust’s efforts are mainly focused on empowering organic agriculture.

~~~~~

[This concludes Part I of Kent Whealy’s talk. Note that photo was taken by myself of an apple tree on the Land Institute grounds at the Prairie Festival.]

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