We're familiar with deer hunters, truffle hunters and house hunters, but a two-person team of retirees in the Pacific Northwest has found something else to track: vintage apples. There were once 17,000 apple varieties in North America; it's estimated that only 4,000 of those remain. But these fruit trees were once plentiful, dotting homesteader's acreage as a vital source of food during lean times.

Many of these fruit orchards were planted after Lincoln's signing of the Homestead Act in 1862, which granted 160 acres to any citizen for a small filing fee. This push to settle the western territory of the U.S. allowed many Americans, including former slaves, women and immigrants, to build a home and start a farm on their own land.

David Benscoter, co-founder of The Lost Apple Project in Washington state, is a former FBI agent and IRS investigator. The retiree got into apple-hunting by pure happenstance: A friend with a disability asked for his help to pick fruit in an orchard behind her house, and he didn't recognize any of the varieties he found.

Benscoter now spends his time hunting down apples long thought lost to history.

"It's like a crime scene," Benscoter told The New York Times. "You have to establish that the trees existed, and hope that there's a paper trail to follow."

Going apple pickin'

older man climbs ladder to prune apple tree Benscoter shows no signs of vertigo as he cuts a few branches from a heritage apple tree. (Photo: The Lost Apple Project/Facebook

Two-thirds of the $4 billion U.S. apple industry is based in Washington, but only 15 varieties account for 90% of the market, with McIntosh, Fuji, Gala and Red Delicious leading the way. But until industrial agriculture took over a century ago, apples had flourished in family orchards and farms throughout the Midwest, New England and the South.

The vintage apples that the hunters are re-discovering aren't grocery-store pretty with poetic names. Most of these vintage varieties, covered in spots and bumps, have funny names, like a Limber Twig, the Rambo or Flushing Spitzenburg.

Commercial growers, however, aren't so enchanted with these old-fashioned beauties. They believe there's a reason these fruits faded into obscurity. "They're hard to grow," Mac Riggan explained to The New York Times. Riggan is the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh in central Washington, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees.

Older varieties can be more sensitive to travel, bruising easily, and can't be stored for a long time. And in this modern economy, they simply don't produce enough fruit to keep up with an international market. "Land costs money," Riggan adds.

On the hunt

older man wearing a hat shows off his apple Brandt brandishes an apple, on the hunt for another almost-extinct varietal. (Photo: The Lost Apple Project/Facebook)

E.J. Brandt is the other founder of The Lost Apple Project. He's a Vietnam veteran with a passion for history. The two men have journeyed through the Northwest trying to harvest those homesteader's forgotten apples. Sometimes in a truck or all-terrain vehicle, oftentimes on foot, time is of the essence to capture these apples before they're forever lost to housing developments or monoculture.

"To me, this area is a goldmine," Brandt told the Associated Press. "I don't want it lost in time. I want to give back to the people so that they can enjoy what our forefathers did."

To do this, the two men work closely with the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Molalla, Oregon, for identification. Since you can't exactly Google what variety an ancient apple is, the team pours over U.S. Department of Agriculture watercolors and dusty textbooks.

Scientists believe these old-school apples could teach us a few things about climate change and genetic diversity. "You have to have varieties that can last, that can grow, produce fruit, survive the heat and maybe survive the cold winter, depending on where you are," Joanie Cooper, a botanist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, says. "I think that's critical."

If the apple is indeed considered "lost," Brandt and Benscoter return to the scene to take cuttings that will eventually be grafted and planted in the conservancy's orchard for future preservation.

"It's a lot of footwork and a lot of book work and a lot of computer work. You talk to a lot of people," Brandt reflects. "And with that type of information, you can zero in a little bit — and then after that, you just cross your fingers and say, ‘Maybe this will be a lost one.'"

Lindsey Reynolds ( @https://twitter.com/LindseyKateR ) takes an epicurean and academic approach to foodways, but she also writes about so many other things, including art, psychology and how to live an environmentally responsible life.

Lost Apple Project hunts for vintage varieties
Amateur botanists with the Lost Apple Project seek to bring back heritage fruits in Northwest U.S.