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By Victoria Sadosky 

Sweet, tart, juicy, and superb for both baking and creating sauces – these are the characteristics used to describe the Gravenstein Apple of Sebastopol, California. Originally brought over by Russian settlers in the 1800s from an Eastern European country no longer in existence, the Gravenstein Apple has thrived, making Northern California its home.

However, in the past few decades, the Gravenstein found itself at risk for extinction. After witnessing acres of apple orchards being plowed down to make way for vineyards, Paula Shatkin sought to revitalize the apple industry in Sonoma County. She attended a Slow Food meeting, suggesting that someone take action to save the apple, to which the response was “Yes, why don’t you?” It has now been seventeen years since Paula founded the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium under Slow Food Russian River, which assists artisan producers and farmers through small projects to secure the apple’s future. The Presidium has been growing ever since, maintaining its status as one of the only active presidia in the United States. According to Paula, the Presidium is “a celebration of something that is part of the history and culture of Sebastopol.”

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With the onset of the Presidium, Paula was not only striving to preserve the Gravenstein itself, but also the region’s agricultural heritage. As Paula said, “The Slow Food movement is very much about biodiversity, and so we are losing the biodiversity if we lose all our apples.” After successfully adding the Gravenstein to Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste catalog, the project proved to be a difficult task, which included forming relationships with farmers and building a committee of passionate individuals.

Paula never imagined she would still be coordinating the Presidium almost two decades later. The fact that the project continues to thrive and evolve is a testament to Paula and the community’s hard work and passion. As Paula commented, “To create a presidia, you have to be willing to be with it for the long haul. You have to be a leader and get people motivated…It’s evolved because there are a lot of people who care.”

Paula and her colleagues have created a range of programs over the years to bring the Gravenstein into the public eye, and help prevent farmers from selling their farms. From sending apple boxes with literature regarding the apple and forming a partnership with The FruitGuys in San Francisco, to developing a project in which 100 restaurants featured Gravensteins on their menus, the projects have been quite successful.

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Their most popular initiative has been the Sebastopol Community Apple Press, presently in its third year. Earlier this month, they opened the press and over 55 families attended, ultimately pressing 6,000 pounds of Gravensteins. As Paula commented, “It’s a way to get people to value their apples. Everyone has an apple tree and they fall on the ground and people don’t know what to do with them, so they are finding new ways to use them because of our project.” Not only does this project highlight the Gravenstein as the centerpiece around which the community can bond, but it also gives the community a medium through which to economically make the most of their apples. At the Gravenstein Apple Fair this month, the press took center stage as they handed out 5,000 pounds of apple juice. In addition to educating the community on methods to make applesauce, due to a recent hard cider movement, they are now educating individuals on at-home cider production. Paula commented that the onset of the hard cider movement has really made a difference, despite the fact that the Gravenstein isn’t the ideal apple for making cider.

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As a result of its hard work, the Presidium has been featured in a variety of magazines, including the New York Times. The demand for the apples has increased, resulting in the farmers earning more income. The farmers have even commented that the Presidium has saved their livelihoods, as currently there is a buyer for every Gravenstein. Despite their achievements, fresh ideas are constantly evolving. There will be tours of the apple orchards in the fall, and Paula says that they are striving to have more educational events with schools.

Paula hopes that the success of the Presidium will inspire others to pause for a moment, take in their surroundings, and see if there are similar foods in their own community which possess a rich, cultural past. As Paula commented, “I have been to Terra Madre and there are presidia projects all over the world and it would blow your mind [what happens] when a community gets together to save a food project. People should feel empowered knowing what we have done, to look around their community and see if there is something there that has a food heritage and brings people together.”

For more information on Slow Food Russian River and the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium, please visit their website.