Book Review: Good Apples: Behind Every Bite

by Patti Naylor, WFAN Board Member

The apple. So simple and sweet. It can be found in school children’s lunchboxes and on teacher’s desks. In a bowl on the kitchen counter. On trees in backyards and in multi-generational family-owned orchards. Apples are as American as pie. Yet, taking a look at the apple and all the complexities of growing, picking, marketing, and selling this favorite fruit can give us an insight into how the food and farming system functions – and who profits from it - in the United States today.

A new book by Susan Futrell, Good Apples: Behind Every Bite, does just that. Ms. Futrell, a long-time local foods advocate who has worked towards a just and sustainable food and agriculture model for over thirty years, takes the reader behind the scenes of the apple industry. Through intense research and personal connections, the author recounts the complexities and intrigues of this particular food industry. The result is a fascinating book that will change how we view the simple apple – and our food and agriculture system.

Although the focus is on Americans’ favorite fruit, anyone who cares about and connects with our nation’s food, farmers, and rural economies will be drawn into this book. Ms. Futrell uses her background in local foods and marketing to bring clarity to the role of apples in our food system. She emphasizes history of apple production, the huge challenges of pest and disease management in orchards, difficulties in marketing and distribution of smaller apple producers, and the personal stories of the people involved in apples. Similarities can be found in many of our modern food crops.

The body of the book weaves a journey through this industry. Intertwined in this narrative are reasons why we have the apple varieties available to us in the grocery stores. Consumer preference, ability to withstand transportation, adaptation to the region’s climate, and pest and disease resistance are important factors. Like other food crops, this also means that the vast diversity of the apple is being lost.

Ms. Futrell digs into the politics and the economics of the apple industry. She writes about public-funded university research on varieties and orchard management, about how the largest orchards sometimes receive preferential cultivars. Smaller orchards, however, do not benefit from the marketing of these new apple varieties to the public. The changes in agriculture overall and specifically to the growth of large commercial apple orchards is told with a sense of sadness but also with optimism. The recent focus on where our food comes from and local markets is a positive, if limited, change.

In the powerful final chapter of Good Apples, the author comes full circle to emphasize the magnitude of problems in what she describes as a bifurcated food system, with niche, local, diversified farms on one side and the huge industrial mono-cropped farms on the other. Her writing skillfully shows the losses to society that this system has given us. Ms. Futrell uses the phrase “democracy of apples” where others might use food sovereignty, the democratic decision-making of a food system, to describe the direction for which we need to strive. She leaves us with a call to action, to challenge the economic structure of the food and agriculture system that has been created by powers greater than ourselves, to find a middle way. Working toward common goals for a just and healthy way to produce and distribute healthy food, using fewer chemicals and working in harmony with nature and benefiting the farmer, food worker, and eater, is the challenge that we must accept.

Ms. Futrell’s deep respect for the apple and the people who have toiled to bring this fruit to our kitchens and lunchboxes shines through. It turns out, the simple apple isn’t so simple after all.