The Sebastopol farmer grows more than 100 varieties of rare and heritage apples, preserving history and horticultural genetics
By Tim Tesconi
Stan Devoto is like a proud parent as he prepares for what will be his 47th harvest in the hills of Sebastopol where he farms 27-acres of apple trees that produce more than 100 different varieties of heirloom apples.
The 72-year-old farmer walks through his orchard every day, watching and waiting as the apples mature to reach the ripeness and flavor that will trigger harvest. Because of the apples’ different ripening schedules, this year’s harvest, which is later than normal, will stretch from August, with Gravensteins, into December. That’s when the very late maturing Sundowner apple should be ripe and ready for the picking.
“I love planting and growing heirloom apples, it’s my passion and what keeps me going every day. At 72 years old I am still planting trees and anticipating what they will produce in the years ahead,” said Devoto, best described as Sonoma County’s version of a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.
Devoto, a longtime member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Farm Trails, grows Gravensteins, of course, but produces a dizzying array of other heirloom apples too. Apples with enticing, provocative names like Arkansas Black, Sweet Tango, Pixie Crunch, Golden Jewel, King David and dozens more. These are his kids and he knows all their names, characteristics and growing quirks.
He said picking his favorite eating apple is like picking a favorite child. But he concedes his favorite go to apple is Ashmead’s Kernel, an English apple dating to 1700 known for its blend of sweet and tangy flavors. He loves Gravensteins too.
Gravenstein apples, known as the pride of Sebastopol and the favorite of plant wizard Luther Burbank, will be celebrated at the Gravenstein Apple Fair on Aug. 12 and 13 at Ragle Ranch Park. Sonoma County Farm Trails has staged the fair for 50 years as a tribute to the area’s signature apple.
Devoto Gardens & Orchards is a horticultural repository for Gravenstein apples and an incredible range of other heritage and rare apple varieties. Devoto is doing his part to preserve valuable genetic material that is threatened because many of these apples are not in commercial production.
Some of the apples in the Devoto collection are best for eating fresh, others for baking or cider. Some are sweet, others tart, some a magical combination of both.
Growing and then selling this vast variety of apples keeps life interesting and always challenging for Devoto. From now until the end of the year, the Sebastopol farmer and his crew will harvest the heirloom apples and haul them to eight farmers markets and select grocery stores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Devoted customers line up for gems like Devoto’s Pink Pearl, Roxbury Russet and Hubbardston Nonesuch apples. His customers are seeking unique flavor and texture in the apples they crunch, something beyond the humdrum Red Delicious and Granny Smiths.
Devoto’s passion for apple farming is well known in the agricultural and larger communities and cherished by his three daughters who grew up amid the apple trees at their 20-acre homestead farm on Gold Ridge Road.
“Alongside his family, apples are his love, trees his children, garden his soul. We’ve talked about how apples and plants give us a reason to live. It’s always humbling to work with the rhythms of nature, and with every season there is something new to learn,” said daughter Jolie Devoto of Oakland. Jolie used her knowledge of apples and fruit from the family orchard to co-found Golden State Apple Cider. After building the company into a thriving business it was sold in 2022 to Seismic Brewing, owned by Christopher Jackson, a scion of the Jackson wine family.
In addition to the apples, Devoto, a real dirt-under the fingernails farmer who works from 5 in the morning until dark, grows 11 acres of wine grapes – pinot noir and chardonnay – sold to top-tier wineries and eight acres of flowers irrigated with reclaimed wastewater from the City of Santa Rosa. The flowers – asters, sunflowers, sweet peas and 40 more floral varieties – are field grown and sold all year long at farmers markets.
Devoto said the flowers, grown on leased ground on Walker Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa, are a way to provide year around work for his employees during the slow times in the vineyards and apple orchards. Some of his employees have been on his farm for 40 years and are part of the farm’s family.
Devoto’s farming operations, now encompassing 45 acres of owned and leased land on five parcels, started with 2.5 acres of rented property in 1976 when he and his wife Susan moved from El Cerrito to start farming in Sebastopol. The upstart farmers began their agricultural careers raising micro greens on an old apple orchard. They soon developed a love for the cultivation of heirloom apple varieties, learning from their experiences while getting expert guidance from old-time apple farmers like Tom Marshall, George LeBallister and Darrel Hurst.
Devoto and several of the area’s other surviving apple growers including Dave Hale and Randy Roberts talk several times each week, comparing notes on pests, markets and the weather.
Stan and Susan worked side-by-side to grow and market apples and their cut flowers while starting a family and raising their three daughters, Jolie, Cecily and Christina. Today, none of the daughters are directly involved in the farming business but the farm awaits if they decide to return one day. Devoto said it’s their decision to make.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” said Devoto. “Sometimes I have to stop myself from thinking of all the work that has to be done.”
Susan Devoto, a beloved fixture at farmers markets for decades, died of cancer 10 years ago. Stan has continued the farming and direct marketing operations, focusing his energy on producing high quality apples and wine grapes that are grown organically. The apples are mostly dry farmed.
As an organic farmer, Devoto spends a lot of time walking through his vineyards and orchards to look for signs of pests and disease. He said wine grapes are much easier to grow organically than apples, which come up against some ruthless pests like codling moths and aphids.
“To be successful in organic farming you have to know your land and the plants you are growing. You must be proactive as opposed to reactive, staying ahead of the problems before they occur or get out of hand,” said Devoto who spends many nights on his tractor applying organic sprays to protect the apples and grapes from bugs, disease and fungus.
Devoto said it would be a lot less work and more profitable to just grow wine grapes but he loves farming apples and will do it as long as he can climb on a tractor. Or spend hours driving to and from farmers markets in San Francisco, Walnut Creek or St. Helena to sell his apples and flowers. It’s the only way to thrive in apple farming.
Devoto said there is an economic reason that the apple acreage in Sonoma County has dwindled from 14,000 acres in the industry’s heyday to some 2,000 acres today. The ever-increasing production costs and the low prices for processing apples make it difficult to turn a profit for the hard work it takes to get a crop off the trees.
Devoto said he would have been out of the apple business a long time ago if he hadn’t cultivated a good market for his specialty apples in the Bay Area. But it takes time and financial resources to travel to the farmers markets where his apples are in demand and command premium prices.
Meanwhile, wine grapes, which return more profit per acre, are now planted on more than 63,000 acres in Sonoma County. Many of the vineyards in west Sonoma County were once apple orchards. Fortunately, with the transition to wine grapes the land stayed in agricultural production, producing pinot noir and chardonnay wines winning world acclaim.
“Sebastopol is one of the best areas in the world for growing top quality apples. The area’s cool climate is also perfect for producing quality pinot noir and chardonnay wine grapes,” said Devoto. He sells his wine grapes to three wineries, EnRoute Winery, Donelan Wines and Littorai Vineyards
Devoto remains one of the last hold outs with his apple acreage but is happy to have his vineyards and the income the wine grapes produce. Still, he finds it rewarding to grow a specialty food crop like his heirloom apples. He takes pride in seeing the happy faces of his appreciative customers at farmers markets where they sometimes have their choice of 15 different Devoto heirloom apples – apples they would never find at Safeway.
“I love the diversity and challenges of apple farming. It would get pretty boring just growing wine grapes,” said Devoto. “I am not ready to be bored yet.”