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Comparing apples to apples:
An Iowa perspective on apples and local food systems
Rich Pirog, education coordinator and John Tyndall, summer intern
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Iowa State University

Introduction and purpose

A food system includes the production, processing, distribution, sales, purchasing, consumption, and waste disposal pathways of food. In Iowa and across the nation the level of interest in local food systems--where local farmers sell their products to nearby consumers--is growing. One example of a local food system is community supported agriculture, which establishes a partnership between farmers and consumers. In a typical Iowa community supported agriculture (CSA) project, consumers pay a given amount to a farmer or group of farmers before the start of the growing season, sharing in some of the risk of producing the food. The food is then delivered directly to the consumer or is picked up at some given location. Other examples of local food systems include farmers markets, roadside stands, on-farm sales, pick-your-own operations, and sales to hotels, restaurants, and institutions.

Many consumers do not understand the current national and global food production system, where much of the food production and processing takes place far away from where consumers live and buy their groceries. Several recent market studies, however, have described a market segment of 25 percent of the U.S. population whose purchasing decisions are increasingly guided by their social and environmental values. 1 Many farmers want to better understand the current food system and modify it so they can receive more of the consumer dollar for the food they produce. Local food systems provide an opportunity for farmers and consumers to build mutually beneficial relationships around food.

This paper will contrast and discuss two representative apple food systems and examine their implications for other local food systems. Apples play an important part in American culture and folklore, including the "as American as apple pie" metaphor, bringing an apple to school for one’s teacher, and the story of legendary pioneer Johnny Appleseed. Apples are one of American’s favorite fruits. In 1998, the average U.S. consumer ate 18.4 pounds of fresh apples and 28.7 pounds of processed apples for a total of 47.1 pounds, more than any other fruit. 2


  1. Provide historical and present-day perspectives of Iowa apple production,
  2. Trace and discuss the path--from farm to Iowa consumer--for an apple variety grown in Iowa and that same variety grown in the state of Washington,
  3. Discuss China’s rise as the world’s leading apple producer and the impact on U.S. growers, and
  4. Explore the potential for and obstacles to local food systems supplying more of the food that Iowans consume, using apples as an example.

Historical and present perspectives of Iowa apple production

The apple likely originated in central and southwestern Asia. Travelers from the Roman Empire introduced it to England during the first century B.C. Upon settling in the "New World", the Pilgrims planted apple trees at Massachusetts Bay. The first North American apple orchard was planted in the Boston area in the 1630s.

Most homesteaders in Iowa and other Midwestern states and territories planted a variety of fruit trees, including apples. The first recorded apple planting in what is now Iowa was by Louis H. Tesson near Montrose in 1799.3 With the formation of the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station under the Federal Hatch Act in 1888, Iowa began an extensive fruit variety-testing program. By the late 1800s, southwest Iowa became an important center of apple production for in-state consumption and export, with seven southwest counties shipping 0.5 million bushels in 1889.4 (The standard conversion unit adopted in 1964 for apples was 42 pounds per bushel.) Cooperative packing plants were established to handle these large crops.

The 1909 Iowa apple crop had grown to 6.7 million bushels, sixth in U.S. apple production. 5 Iowa apple production reached an historical peak at 9.5 million bushels in 1911. Iowa remained a top apple-producing state in the early 1920s, but production dropped off steadily from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. The decrease was due to increased Iowa row crop production and greater apple production from competing states such as Washington, Michigan, and New York. The Iowa apple industry was dealt a devastating blow by a severe freeze on November 11 (Armistice Day) in 1940, which killed or severely injured many of the trees. Apple production in 1941 was 15 percent of the 1940 crop. 7 Many apple growers decided not to replant their orchards, and the apple industry dwindled in its economic importance to Iowa.

Based on a review of the literature and conversations with present-day growers and horticulturists, the decline in Iowa apple production can be attributed to several factors:


U.S. agriculture after World War II became increasingly mechanized, and food production more specialized, with certain regions of the country producing a few crops in huge volumes with a distribution and marketing infrastructure that would be competitive in national and global markets. Iowa became a leading corn and soybean producer. Washington, New York, and Michigan became leading fruit producers, with apples as one of their main crops. Washington is now the largest apple-producing state, growing more than half of the nation’s fresh apples. 9 Washington’s current 172,000 acres of apple orchards cover an area 78 times larger than Iowa’s orchards. New York, Michigan, California and Pennsylvania round out the top five apple-producing states in 1998.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Iowa’s apple crop averaged 262,000 bushels.11 There were various attempts by growers and state government to stimulate apple production in the 1980s. Growers formed an apple cooperative in western Iowa in the late 1980s in response to potential markets, but it folded due to a number of financial, infrastructure, and management problems. In 1997 Iowa apple orchards covered more than 2,200 acres and produced 307,000 bushels. 12 Based on 1998 crop production reports, Iowa ranks 31st among 36 states that grow apples commercially.13 If Iowa’s peak 1911 apple production occurred in 1998, the state would have been ranked sixth in U.S. apple production. The 1999 Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Directory lists 107 apple producers in 52 Iowa counties.14

Apples and food safety

Food safety concerns about apples will not be included in the paths of the Iowa and Washington apples traced in the next section. They are mentioned here because food safety issues have had a recent impact on the marketing options and profitability of Iowa apple growers.

Recent national concern about the safety of apple cider has followed several outbreaks of illness that were traced back to contamination of fresh apple cider by the microorganism E. coli O157:H7. (None of the outbreaks were in Iowa.) As of September 8, 1999, the Food and Drug Administration required that a warning must be placed on the label of unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juice products sold in packaged form from retail establishments.15 Iowa grocery stores are requiring that all unpasteurized cider displayed in stores carry such a warning label. Many supermarkets now carry only pasteurized cider. Nearly 100 Iowa apple growers market juice and/or cider as a viable income source for about 20 percent of the crop.16 Several larger orchards have pasteurization equipment and are selling pasteurized cider, or have ordered the equipment.17 Lacking other market outlets for the lower quality apples used for cider, smaller apple producers who cannot afford to purchase the pasteurization equipment may suffer significant income losses if they are forced to eliminate cider production.

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