From the Orchard to the Oven: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Fall Apple Harvest

Go behind the scenes of the fall apple harvest in Washington's Columbia River Valley, the nation's premier apple-growing region.
By: Emily Lee
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Discovering Ambrosia

Take a bite of your firstAmbrosia and your expectations for what an apple should be will change forever. Crisp, honeyed and exceptionally juicy, this prized newcomer is what produce industry experts hope for when they talk about raising the bar — and numbers show that shoppers feel similarly. In 2014, Ambrosia sales jumped over 47 percent, moving the apple into the top 10 selling varieties in the U.S. for the first time. This retail feat is even more impressive when you consider Ambrosia's fortuitous start: The first tree was discovered in British Columbia just a little over 20 years ago, when a chance seedling cropped up among an orchard ripe with Jonagolds. Against all odds, the seedling transformed into a healthy apple tree, and in the early 1990s, it bore its first fruit. Today, Ambrosia apples are grown exclusively by the McDougall family in the heart of Washington's Columbia River Valley. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the fall Ambrosia harvest, from the nursery all the way to the kitchen table.

The Nursery

Growing an apple tree isn't as simple as planting a seed — especially with an accidental hybrid like Ambrosia. In order to replicate the apples that first enchanted Canadian growers some 20 years ago, orchardists rely on a technique called budding. During the process, a bud from a mature Ambrosia tree is grafted onto a generic rootstock — it could be any rootstock, even the root of a crabapple tree. The bud is held in place by a small plastic wrap to ensure successful adherence. Wraps applied in August will come off on November 1. In late February, orchardists will cut the root above the grafted bud, allowing the first Ambrosia shoot to sprout from the top. It's common to have as many as 500,000 trees in a nursery at one time, but it takes a lot of tender love and care — two whole years' worth, to be specific — to ensure that the young trees make it to a mature orchard. Roots that were planted in the nursery during the spring of 2015 will be ready for the mature orchard by spring of 2017.

Replanting

Just like people, apple trees experience their own awkward phase between adolescence and adulthood. Trees that were planted a year ago are approaching maturity, but they aren't quite yet ready to bear fruit. They'll need a full second season to grow healthy roots and branches. These junior trees are moved to a different plot, where they’ll have more room to flourish. Think of it as an apple middle school.

The Mature Orchard

Legacy Orchards, the McDougalls’ latest endeavor, is home to roughly 600 acres of plantable ground. At the moment, just 30 of those acres are dedicated to Ambrosia. Next year, that number will jump to 120 acres in order to meet the rising demand. To maintain healthy trees, orchardists rely on trellises (which prevent overcrowding and support the weight of the fruit) plus a nontoxic clay mixture called kaolin to prevent sunburn (yes, apples are susceptible to sunburn too!). Once a mature tree is planted, it's used for only 20 years. Any fruit it bears beyond that point tends to take on a woody taste, and of all the apple varieties, Ambrosia — meaning "food of the gods" in ancient Greek mythology — has a high reputation to uphold.

The Right Time to Pick

We all know autumn is prime apple-picking season in the most-general sense, but every apple variety has its own unique harvest window for optimal freshness. For Ambrosia, that window is late September through October. When you take your first bite, prepare for a crisp, sweet burst of flavor and explosive, drip-down-to-your-elbow juiciness. The apples you pick up at the grocery store or farmers market will be plenty fresh, but nothing compares to fruit fresh from the tree. 

At the Packing Facility

Once the apples arrive at the packing plant, the first order of business is washing. After the apples have passed through two separate water systems — first the dump tank filled with a diluted chlorine solution (to kill bacteria), then the straight flume for a final round of soaking — they're dried and lightly waxed to preserve color and freshness. Organic apples are never waxed; in fact, they're processed at an entirely separate facility. At McDougall & Son's packing facilities, an estimated 3.8 million boxes are packed every year — 700,000 of those are grown and processed organically.

Sorting the Beauties

Once the fruit has been washed, the next phase is cosmetic sorting. During this step, trained sorters keep an eye out for any fruit with punctures, bruises or other defects. Apples that are deemed cosmetically unappealing are removed from the belt, but very little is ever wasted. Most of the "ugly" apples are used to produce apple juice or applesauce. 

Size Matters

After any damaged fruit has been removed, the beauties continue on for further sorting. Here, the apples are dispersed across a belt made up of small black cups, each one calibrated to detect weight. Apples that meet the weight requirement for the Premium category — the creme de la creme — are siphoned off for boxing. Those clocking in at a lower weight are grouped into Grade B. Although Grade B apples are just as tasty as the Premiums, they're bagged and sold at a lower cost per pound due to their smaller size (and their more uniform color).

Ready for Shelving

A great number of the apples are taken to marketplaces straight off the belt, while others are placed in Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage. Here, temperature and oxygen levels are lowered so that we can enjoy Ambrosias long after the peak harvest season has ended. 

The Final Destination

Once you get your Ambrosias home, their final destination is completely up to you. Slice them razor-thin for a sweet and delicate addition to fall salads, or blend them into a comforting soup along with carrots, or sweet potatoes, and a medley of fall spices. Unless you plan to eat them fresh out of your hand, store them in the refrigerator to preserve the crisp texture. Of course, they’ll always have a place in deep-dish apple pie or warm apple crisp. If you go the dessert route, we recommend serving the dish with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a caramel-sauce drizzle for good measure.

Get the Recipe: Old-Fashioned Ambrosia Apple Crisp

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Fall Produce Guide