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Retired Chemical Engineer Saves Over 1,200 Apple Varieties From Extinction

Meet the retired chemical engineer who has remarkably prevented over 1,200 apple varieties from reaching extinction.

(Credit: Frank Wagner/Shutterstock)

Meet the retired chemical engineer who has remarkably prevented over 1,200 apple varieties from reaching extinction.

North Carolina-born Tom Brown has made it his mission to discover and save ‘lost’ heirloom apple variants.

The endeavor saw Brown rediscovering the forgotten apple varieties in his home state of North Carolina and across Appalachia.

After retiring from his job as a chemical engineer towards the end of the 1990s, Brown became more invested in his roles as an apple hunter and orchardist.

From Chemical Engineer To Apple Hunter

Before his focus shifted towards rediscovering apples, Brown’s career couldn’t be more different. He was a chemical engineer who worked for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company – America’s second-largest tobacco company.

Becoming introduced to heritage apples back in 1998 at a farmer’s market, Brown’s intrigue in the topic began after talking to the man running the apple stand – Maurice Marshall.

Interestingly, Brown hadn’t even heard of heritage apples before having this crucial conversation!

Brown and Marshall started discussing the prospect of rediscovering forgotten variants of apples that had ceased being produced commercially.

This conversation immediately intrigued Brown, and from that moment, he made it his mission to rediscover ‘lost’ apple varieties. He retired from his engineering duties and became a dedicated apple hunter.

In 1999, a year after his initial conversation with Marshall, Brown rediscovered his first apple variety. Known as ‘Yellow Potts’, the discovery was made in Iredell County.

Since that initial find, an incredible 1,200 ‘lost’ varieties of apples have similarly been rediscovered by Brown.

The Process Of Rediscovering Apple Varieties

As you can imagine, searching for lost apple varieties is not a simple endeavor; it’s incredibly time-consuming. The process involves conducting numerous interviews with the local populace across rural Appalachia.

This stage is essential, as some of these Appalachian residents could hold invaluable insight regarding where to discover apple trees, in addition to assisting in finding defunct orchards.

Without gaining this knowledge, Brown would not have discovered several of these orchards, as many end up being reincorporated into forests over the years.

To showcase his rediscoveries, Brown sets up annual stands at farmer’s markets across Appalachia, in which he becomes informed of additional key areas to investigate by locals.

The retired chemical engineer is also a keen orchardist, cultivating some 700 varieties in his personal orchard – from Rabun Bald, Royal Lemon and Night Dropper.

What is both fascinating and rather worrying is the fact that some of these rediscovered apples are derived from solitary specimens. In other words, they are the last of their kind.

A New Appreciation Of Rare Apple Varieties

Going back to that first conversation with Marshall, Brown discovered that by the 20th century, commercial growers focused on producing a select few apple varieties.

Subsequently, thousands of previously abundant variants began to face extinction or near-extinction throughout the century.

This news distressed Brown and was a fundamental reason behind his dramatic career shift.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. When Marshall discussed his personal apple collection, he divulged that many of them were directly recovered from old Appalachian properties.

As such, it’s very likely that many more forgotten varieties exist, perhaps attached to decades-old properties and abandoned orchards.

Brown may have saved over a thousand varieties thus far, but there could be so many more out there that need saving.

Regardless of his successes in rediscovering ‘lost’ types of apples over the past twenty-five years, Brown does not plan to stop his search for even more forgotten varieties.

Written By

I am an MLitt Digital Journalism Masters student at Strathclyde University, and a 2.1 graduate of English Literature (MA Hons) at the University of Edinburgh. Engaging for a decade with journalistic writing and reporting, I have been involved with a broad range of media work; from sports journalism and features, to news writing and disability awareness.

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