Eastbound Highway 50 leaves Sacramento and in less than an hour slips into the quiet Gold Rush town of Placerville. Tucked among forests of towering cedars, arrow-straight lodgepole pines and lush black oaks lies the area that was designated Apple Hill almost five decades ago by a small group of farmers looking to survive a fast-moving disease that killed their pear trees.
They call themselves the Apple Hill Growers Association, and since 1964 have grown from 16 to 56 members. Even more impressive, association members pump more than $159 million annually into the local economy and attract about 750,000 visitors a year. Apples are El Dorado County’s No. 1 crop. Growers produce almost 6,000 tons of apples and more than 185,000 gallons of juice and cider each year.
This year is like no other for the Apple Hill Growers Association: They’re wrapping up their 49th year and looking forward to a golden anniversary in 2014. And while they have big ideas for celebrating their 50th in style, right now is the busiest time of the year for most of the farmers and vintners that comprise the area tourists and visitors fondly call Apple Hill. That means plenty of freshly picked apples, enough apple pies and apple crisps to fill thousands of freezers, countless jars of apple butter, gallons of apple cider, pumpkins of all sizes, wine from local grapes, corn mazes, Christmas trees, crafts and more.
“Trust me, we’ll be making a splash once we get this year in bed and our ducks in a row,” said Ann Wofford, Apple Hill association secretary and owner of Wofford Acres Winery.
Lynn Larsen, president of the association and owner of Larsen Apple Barn, said with the busiest season of the year already upon them, chances are no one will have much time to think about next year until the end of this one. She did reveal next year’s celebrations will include a two-day event in August, and will highlight the history of the Apple Hill association. Visitors will get the usual ranch experience plus an opportunity to see old videos and photographs.
Apple Hill farmers and ranchers love talking history, and there is no shortage of historic photographs and displays of old-time farm implements and artifacts. Even better, the farmers and ranchers themselves are treasure troves of information, Larsen said.
Geographically, Apple Hill association farms stretch about 10 miles between Schnell School Road on the west and Blair Road on the east. Highway 50 is the south border, and the South Fork of the American River the north border. The farms and ranches come in all sizes. Some don’t grow any apples at all. Their names are as diverse as the folks who own them: Denver Dan’s Apple Patch, Pine O’ Mine, Dancing Oaks Orchard, Kids Inc., Grandpa’s Cellar and more.
While most are located around the tiny community of Camino, there are other association member farms and ranches near Placerville and Pollock Pines.
The association was born out of tragedy. In the early 1960s a disease called pear decline destroyed pear orchards in a matter of months. Pear production fell from 52,000 tons annually in 1958 to 8,435 in 1965.
“El Dorado County had a lot of pear growers back then,” said El Dorado County Ag Commissioner Charlene Carveth, “and when the pear decline came, many wondered how they were going to survive. A lot of local jobs depended on the orchards. At the same time, there were other pear producing areas, and that was driving prices down. The ranchers and farmers were looking for a different strategy, and decided on apples.”
Call it luck or genius, but when the original ranchers decided they would sell directly to the consumer rather than export their products, it secured the association’s future. It was called ranch marketing 50 years ago, and today is all the rage with many names, including farm-to-table or farm-to-fork.
Growers have diversified over the past 49 years, adding new crops and bake shops. After apple season, for example, you can cut a Christmas tree or go wine tasting. An iris farm opens in May, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries ripen early to mid summer, then come the stone fruits (like peaches) late summer, and then you can start all over again with apples. In addition, the association tries to lure visitors to the area with a myriad of year-round events that include from blossom festivals, charity runs, wine tastings, kids activities and more.
Customers have changed, too, Wofford said, although they still enjoy being able to meet the farmers and talk about the crops. Years ago people came to buy apples, she explained, and sometimes bought a pie or two. Today’s customers buy 6 pies for the freezer, and a few bags of apples.
“People tell me all the time that we’re living the dream. I guess we are,” Wofford said. “This place is special. You can buy apples all year at the grocery store, but ours are freshly picked and when they’re gone, there aren’t any more until next year. You can talk directly to the person who raised those apples or berries, or who corked the wine.
“I never appreciated common varieties like Red Delicious until one of the growers picked one off the tree. It was a completely different animal from any store-bought Red Delicious. This is the way apples are supposed to be eaten. ... I love that this group of ideologically different people have pulled together for a common good and in the process have brought joy to people who want to live the way we do. It’s from the heart.”