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Meet the apple detective, whose mission is to uncover America’s lost apples

Posted at 12:50 PM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 15:50:16-04

If you like apples, this story is for a you.

A team of researchers and experts in the Pacific Northwest have one mission: find America's lost apples.

Like most investigations, the case of the lost apple starts with a detective. In this case, that position is held by David Benscoter. He says their mission is to look for “apples believed to be extinct or lost; they’ve not been seen for close to 100 years.”

The retired federal agent says his current work involving fruit isn't that different from his former job.

"I used to work a lot of high-volume document cases, and this research for these lost apples is high-volume documents.”

He fell into this line of work quite by accident. A friend needed help with an old apple orchard sitting on a farm dating back to the early 1900's. They simply wanted to know what kind of apple tree they had. So, like anyone would do, he turned to Google.

“I started clicking about apple orchards in our area and I found an amazing history of apple growing in eastern Washington,” he said.

And so, it began. The orchards under investigation aren't in common growing areas, which took his research to old county fairs.

“It was one of those lightbulb moments. I knew if this newspaper printed the county fair results, I’d have good idea of what was growing in the county at that time,” he said.

That led to pioneer days and the Oregon Trail. Additionally, it led to the first recorded nurseries.

The old days blended into modern times. Now, he's got a Facebook page called the Lost Apple Project.

“It’s almost as if some of the people are going back in time, especially going back to mom’s kitchen and mom giving them an apple; something they haven’t tasted in 60, 70 years.”

In order to truly identify which apple it was and where it came from, he had to connect with an expert. There's only a handful of them in the country.

Shaun Shepherd is one of them.

“I know a couple of 100 varieties off hand, without any trouble,” Shepherd said. “So, when I get an apple in my hand, I look at it and I say, ‘What does that look like? Does it look like something else?’ Then, I check my list.”

We got our hands on the list he created. It's sort of secret. There's a long list of names on the hugely extensive, detailed, intricate spreadsheet.

“There might be as many as 17,000 kinds,” he said. “They’re all apples. Some are similar; a lot are just red.”

A lot of them fall under the classification of Jonathan. Apples, thousands of varieties, including those connected to the Jonathan kind, are planted on a 40-acre farm belonging to the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Mollala, Oregon.

Shepherd and the other experts he works with are using the collection to preserve, protect and share their knowledge, so that no apple is ever left behind.

It's a big job, as apples go back thousands of years. There are countless apples that were grown and never heard of again. But if you ask people like Shepherd, this is just the beginning of the fact-finding investigation.

“The only way to get them back is doing what we’re doing, going to these old orchards, homesteads, looking at old trees, picking and sending them in to be identified,” Benscoter said.

It’s all in hopes of preserving America's apple.