A couple of yeas ago I found myself with a free day in Seattle during the apple harvest. Having always heard about the vast orchards in the Columbia Valley which seem to supply grocery stores across the country with an unending supply of apples, I decided to drive across the Cascades on I-90 and have a look. Beyond the basic interest of seeing the orchards, I was also interested in seeing the Washington State Apple Commission visitor’s center in Wenatchee.
When I think of an orchard the predominant color which comes to my mind is green. Driving up the western side of the Cascades that was the color I saw, but shortly after crossing the pass the green faded to brown, and as I came into Wenatchee it felt more like I was entering a desert than an orchard belt. There was no mistaking the orchards, however, as they dominated the cultural landscape with blocks of well ordered green lines of trellised trees contrasting against the decidedly non-green ground color.
Along the way I stopped off at the first roadside stand I came to and purchased a half pint bottle of sweet cider and a single Golden Delicious apple out of a box which was brought from the tree to the stand just as I arrived. I decided to eat the apple before getting back in the car as I expected it to be a juicy mess, but unlike the Golden Delicious apples I am used to from orchards in Indiana which have patches of russet and are slightly soft and very juicy, this apple was perfectly smooth, hard, a bit on the dry side and had a sweet taste with only a hint of the flavour I had expected. In short, it tasted exactly like the Golden Delicious apples found in grocery stores in the middle of June. The cider, which I drank a little later in the day, tasted sugary and thin; when I took a closer look at the label I noticed it was from concentrate.
The stop at the visitor’s center was one of the highlights of the visit. While aimed mainly at “general consumers” there was also enough information available to those who have some experience with growing apples to make a stop worthwhile. The video presentation did a good job of highlighting the various stages of the apple year from the winter maintenance of the trees and equipment through to harvest, storage, and distribution of the apples. On leaving the visitors center packets of apple slices were provided. One of the more interesting portions of the video was a description of the grading process, in which it was discussed that to meet the Washington state grading standards apples needed to be crisp (measured with an impact test), sweet, blemish free, and uniform in appearance – which suddenly made my roadside experience a bit more understandable, if not more palatable.
With the preliminary stops completed I began my driving tour up the Columbia toward Lake Chelan. The river basin is lined with mile after mile of orchards, most of them irrigated with water from the river and nearly all of them trellised dwarf trees in high density plantations. The apple harvest in that area was a staggering operation, with a semi trailer full of apples being delivered every few minutes to the large processing and storage plants. The roadsides were lined with impromptu loading docks containing walls of empty and filled crates and an area just large enough for a semi to pull into left clear. This was an apple factory, and far removed from the orchards I have encountered anywhere else.
At the end of the day I stopped off at another roadside stand, this one a year-round store attached to one of the large storage facilities. The apples were as shiny and visually perfect as those in any grocery store, and a sign advertised them as “new crop” which is somewhat distressing as it seems to me to mean that anything else is “old crop.”
Once back in Seattle, I found the packet of apple slices from the visitor’s center. When I looked at the back of the package, it read “Produce of Chile”.