Nana Mae’s and the sour taste of an ungrafted economy.
Apples! Such an innocent fruit. The sturdy globe of a red-cheeked apple is American shorthand for student affection of favored teachers, wholesome homespun values, patriotic pies, and good health.
Apples! Such cunning tricksters. Leave an apple tree ungrafted and it will produce an apple entirely its own, of a kind unknown anywhere else in the world. With small exception, its native fruit will be bitter and unpleasant.
Apples! Replaced by grapes.
Really? Only six percent of Sonoma County’s 1 million acres is planted to grapes. And while wine grapes are certainly highly valued, bringing in some $582 million in 2012, apples held their own, with the treasured heritage Gravenstein variety hauling in over $1.7 million and the overall apple crop topping $5.3 million.
After grapes, apples are the most widely planted and lucrative crop in the county.
So why are things so tough for apple farmers Paul and Kendra Kolling?
It’s as though Sonoma County’s apple industry was never grafted onto something that would mark it sweetly through the generations.
We suspend the local food harvest and put it on the shelf for folks. Kendra Kolling
The Kollings own and operate Nana Mae’s Organics in Sebastopol, a business devoted to processing heirloom, organic, sustainable Sonoma County apple products into juice and sauce. They’ve had a good run. But it might be over.
Don’t blame the grapes. Blame the producer’s conundrum. Blame capitalism. What the hell, blame the French.
“We’re basically modern-day share-croppers,” says Kendra Kolling bluntly. The Kollings farm 300 acres of apple trees in orchards held by 100 landowners. Paul Kolling has been in the business for almost 30 years and the couple have achieved wide regard for their juice and sauce on shelves along the West Coast.
But one couple can’t farm, pick, and process 20,000 pounds of product a year themselves. They need a co-packer, an outfit set up to take their work onto the shelves. In the Kolling’s case, that’s Manzana, the Graton company that’s served them well for decades. Until March 2012, that is, when this family business was sold to a European agricultural conglomerate based in France and, according to Kendra Kolling, everything changed.
“They’ve shifted the way that we’ve done business by putting a cog in the wheel of the structure,” she says. Nana Mae’s—named for Paul’s grandmother—typically produces 15,000-20,000 cases of heirloom apple products solely sourced from Sonoma County in a year.
Contacted at her offices, Manzana president Suzi Kaido refuted the suggestion that any changes in the plant’s operation are due to the sale in March 2012 to Agrial/Eclorsa and refused to comment on the sale itself.
In the old days, Kolling says, Manzana would accept a down payment on the year’s work and the family would pay as they went. In the new days, Kolling says, Manzana gives just 30 days for the business to pay for whatever it produces.
“We are not able to do it,” she says flatly. “We can no longer store product there and have to pay for what we make within 30 days. Instead of the 20,000 cases we need to keep the shelves full, we were only able to put up 5,000 cases.”
2013, Kendra says, was a “perfect storm, a bountiful apple harvest” with gorgeous sweet globes hanging from the trees. The Kollings sorrowfully sold some 5,000 pounds of excellent fruit to a vinegar producer to pay Manzana within its new 30-day limit on 5,000 cases of product, leaving them 15,000 cases short.
Kaido says that she won’t “comment on it except to say that the reason we had to do that was because we ran out of warehouse space. We need the co-packers to not just store their products in our warehouses.”
What’s more, Kolling says that Manzana is no longer merely a co-packer but actually competes against them with its North Coast products, sourced from out-of-state apples (think: Arizona) which can, with perfect legality, be labeled “Made in Sebastopol,” because that in fact is where the juice is squeezed (Graton purists notwithstanding).
Kaido answers, “No, we get all we can from the local growers, and if that isn’t enough, we go into wherever we can in the United States where we can get good apples.”
Going to another co-packer, Kolling says, is a fiscal impossibility. When factoring in trucking costs and the bruises of travel, it doesn’t make sense for Nana Mae to find another Bay Area co-packing facility. It makes more sense to shut down.
“This is a very pivotal point in our operation,” she says, “because of what we offer in the local food economy. We suspend the local food harvest and put it on the shelf for folks. Right now we don’t know if we’ll be able to continue that because we just can’t come up with the money.”
As a self-described “good, industrious, farmer’s wife,” Kolling has launched her own Farmer’s Wife label, selling apple-positive sandwiches and salads at farmers’ markets to help support their family of five. There are rumors of hard cider production. But Nana Mae’s is at an impasse.
“It’s a tough game and we struggle,” Kolling says. “A lot of people looking in from the outside think that we’re a big successful company, and that’s because we hustle and we work hard. Our margin is very small and our return on the product is very small. Sometimes we wake up and ask ourselves why we’re doing this. We’re into it too deep now.”
She pauses. “We’re entirely dedicated to a local product. If it’s going to sustain itself, that’s to be determined.”