The Central-Western New South Wales town of Orange is reclaiming its role as a major apple-producing centre.

Story By Sheridan Rogers

Why Orange and not Apple? It’s a good question, because not a single orange is grown in this Central-Western New South Wales town. The climate is too cool for oranges, though not for apples. Indeed, apples have flourished here since 1841.

The origin of Orange is not without interest. Originally called Blackmans Swamp, it was designated a village and given its present name by then surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell in 1846 in honour of Prince William of Orange, who later became the king of Holland.

Orange’s apple story began a few years earlier when George Hawke was given 2.5 hectares of land by his employer, William Tom, 20 kilometres east of where Orange now lies. It took him a while to work out what to plant on his land. In 1838 he put in some apples, cherries and plums.

Three years later, his first harvest yielded two apples and gave birth to a tradition of growing apples in Orange that continues today. The following year, he picked 26 apples and by the 1850s his hard work began to pay off when he started selling apples to miners coming to the area to work the goldmines, which still produce today.

By 1928, when the Orange Producers Rural Cooperative was formed, there were 300 orchardists. By 1945, 380 apple orchards covered a total of 1620ha. For 170 years, the Orange region was mainland Australia’s largest producer of apples and was known as ‘Apple City’. Growing on the slopes of extinct volcano Mt Canobolas, Orange’s apples have an intense natural flavour and colour, ensured by the cool temperatures and plentiful rainfall. The climate, volcanic soil, geology and topography make up a distinct and unique environment for apples.

By the 1970s, Orange was producing 85,000–90,000 tonnes of apples compared with current production of 20,000 tonnes. Falling returns, creeping suburbia and more profitable agricultural alternatives such as wine grapes and cherries, along with supermarket domination of the marketplace, have all played a part in the decline of the industry.

“The same volcanic soils, high altitude and long cool ripening period that lead to the development of intense flavour and colour in wine grapes also apply to apples,” says Kim Currie, executive officer of Taste Orange, a body set up five years ago to promote food and wine in the Orange region. “In fact it was the quality of the apples that alerted the original grape growers to what could be achieved in the region. But where the wine industry attracted media-savvy types who knew how to tell the world how good their products were, the orchardists were locked into a 170-year-old mindset and lacked the collaboration that exists in the wine industry.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #78

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2011