With heirloom varieties, Grant Gibbs takes a unique slice of the apple market pie

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Photo: E. Palikhey/LI-BIRD

Washington grown apples are among the best in the world. The state produces more apples than any other state in the USA. The apple is also Washington’s number one agricultural commodity valued at USD 2.18 billion in 2013.

Of the 2500 varieties of apples cultivated in the USA only a small percentage are suited for cultivation in Washington. Eight varieties account for 97% of the apples produced in the state. Red delicious is the most popular at 34% of the market share followed by Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Cripps Pink (Pink Lady), Honeycrisp and Braeburn  (http://bestapples.com/washington-orchards/crop-facts/).

Granny Smith from Australia and Red Delicious from Iowa are the oldest varieties, 1868 and 1870 respectively, still widely grown in the state. The rest of the popular varieties are from 1950s or later, except for Golden Delicious, which is from 1914.

As a graduate student in the Department of Plant Pathology, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Tilth Conference in November in Wenatchee.  Having worked with smallholder farmers in Nepal for five years, I was eager to learn from farmers in Washington. Here I attended a field trip to Gibbs Organic Farm, which gave me a glimpse at the apple market, apple varieties, and how the Gibbs family manages their orchard and other elements of their farm.

Danielle Gibbs with a box of McIntosh apples during the farm tour. Photo: S. Sthapit.

Grant Gibbs of Gibbs Organic Farm grows eight varieties of apples. Grant began his farming career as an apple picker before starting his own orchard over 3 decades ago. As the apple orchards around him moved on to newer cultivars, Grant persisted with the familiar heirloom apple varieties from his formative years.

Grant grows, in the order of oldest to newest, Gravenstein (a 17th century cultivar from Denmark), Northern Spy, Yarlington Mill, McIntosh, Winesap, Jonathan, Stayman and Golden Delicious. Besides the oldest and the newest, all of Grant’s varieties are from early to mid-19th century.

Golden Delicious is the only variety he grows that is also in the state’s top eight. In fact, it gets more intriguing. The Washington Apple Commission lists information on 29 cultivars suitable for the state. But seven of the heirloom varieties Grant grows are not in the list. In this sense, he is a custodian of these varieties preserving the tradition and knowledge while serving customers that prefer these heirlooms.

Grant Gibbs with his contraption for cooking off the anti-nutritive factors in soybeans. Photo: S. Sthapit.

But Grant is no Luddite who fears new technology or change. His farm operations have transformed several times over the decades. A good mechanic, Grant has developed mechanical contraptions custom-scaled to the size of his needs. At the 2016 Tilth Conference, his joy and triumph were unmistakable as he demonstrated his contraptions for turning the oats, barley, corn and soybean he grows into a nutritionally balanced chicken feed for his layers. Many small scale poultry farmers in the area buy feed from Grant.

The Gibbs Organic Farm isn’t stuck in the past either. Danielle Gibbs, Grant’s daughter-in-law, manages production and marketing of vegetables, herbs and berries. She is an expert fermenter and makes her own sauerkraut, cider and other fermented foods. She recently upgraded to a commercial kitchen on the farm for her fermenting business, an investment option often considered beyond the pale for farms this size. She is a regular participant at Tilth and similar conferences, always on the lookout for inspiration, ideas, and a sense of community.

Grant Gibbs found his niche by thinking differently than other orchardists. Only a handful of varieties dominating the market is not unique to apples. Take any commodity, plot the number of farms versus varieties and the graph will distinctively resemble a power-law graph following the 80-20 rule (Figure). Proponents of agrobiodiversity conservation and management have argued that the varieties that constitute the tail end of the graph harbor a diversity of unique traits and market opportunities suitable for small to medium sized farms and enterprises[1].

Fig. 1. Power-law. Picture by Hay Kranen/PD.

The power-law is applicable to other markets as well. For instance, the movie and music industries have been dominated by blockbusters and hits. The editor of the Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson, in his 2004 article and later in his book The Long Tail  noted that this is not because people do not want diversity in content. It is because the producers and suppliers did not have a way to get the diversity of creative content to the right audiences. Online marketplaces such as Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes have removed the constraints of physical inventory space that movie theaters, video rental stores and music stores face.  They have also enabled a widely-dispersed audience to find creative content that fit their unique tastes.

We are entering an unprecedented era for marketing from the long tail rather than the short head. In this light, Grant Gibbs and his heirloom apple varieties constitute a part of a farming business that is authentic and fitting to his creative and productive aspirations. It is a fitting case of innovative farms melding the new with the old and as such might be the way of the future rather than a relic of the past.


[1] For example, chapter 22 by Lamers et al. in Tropical Fruit Tree Diversity: Good Practices for In Situ and On-Farm Conservation, http://www.bioversityinternational.org/e-library/publications/detail/tropical-fruit-tree-diversity/