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Vancouver's Heritage Orchard: where science and history intersect

A simple sign belies the science and SW Washington history at work in the Heritage Orchard at the 78th Street Farm in Vancouver.

On a small plot of land in Hazel Dell, surrounded by housing developments and plumbing stores and alongside a busy road, is a glimpse at what Clark County used to look like. Lush, rolling fields of verdant grass, vegetable gardens and old barns and outbuildings. And on that land is a small orchard that represents an interesting intersection of science and history.

The Heritage Orchard, part of the Washington State University Extension on the 78th Street Heritage Farm, is helping researchers in the fight to stop the spread of a certain fly that could undermine Washington's apple industry. At the same time, the farm is also preserving some of the sweetest memories of the earliest Southwest Washington pioneers.

And it's Robert the Maggot Man's home base.

"The state of Washington has a billion-dollar industry, exporting apples," says the Maggot Man, "And if they are infested, you can't sell 'em."

Import countries worry that introduced species could run amok in their domestic crops. Even the apple maggot itself was likely introduced to Oregon and Washington by people coming from the East Coast, maybe even the earliest white settlers who planted apples for livestock feed at Fort Vancouver.

Robert the Maggot Man is much more than an amateur orchardist. He's a biological science technician for the WSU Extension. He got his name because he's specifically interested in stopping the spread of the rhagoletis pomonella, commonly known as the apple maggot. The female apple maggot fly lays its eggs inside an apple by poking a tiny hole in the skin, and laying an egg that hatches into a maggot that eats its way through the apple.

"You cut one in half and on the East Coast they call them railroad tracks," says Robert, referring to what the tracks inside an apple maggot-infested apple look like. "They're gonna be about the color of my hair and as thin as one of my hairs is, and you'll see them wrapping all through the flesh."

As part of his apple maggot and fruit fly research, Robert is in charge of the small plot of land where he's growing dozens of fruit trees and bushes, not just standard edibles like apples, cherries and pears, but also thimbleberries and currants. These are the fruits that the native First People ate, combined with the fruits brought west by American settlers.

The orchard is on the former site of Clark County's historic Poor Farm, where indigent families, elderly people and mildly-handicapped men worked the land for 70 years, starting way back in 1873. It closed when Social Security took over providing sustenance for the poor. Clark County took the site over, and now it's the home of the county's master gardeners, several 4H programs, a plot of community gardens and a place to grow crops for the Clark County Food Bank.

The Heritage Orchard serves several purposes. It's a great place to study Southwest Washington's apple maggot infestation on the fruits the flies love the most, and discovering which varieties they don't like. A lot of learning comes out of the orchard. And it's also a place where the fruits of the pioneers are being resurrected. And it's all thanks to Robert's work with the USDA.

The Maggot Man started dealing with apples and maggots late in life. He used to own an auto shop, but he got out of the business, went to college, and got on with the WSU Extension as a four-month temp. That was almost 20 years ago.

Now, Robert works hand-in-hand with Dr. Wee Lee Yee of the USDA Agriculture Research Service. Dr. Yee has published many papers on their research. And as part of his research, Robert has planted a bunch of fruit trees that used to feed some of the earliest settlers to move to SW Washington from the east coast.

Robert used to spend a lot of time on the road, checking old orchards and homesteads for flies and larvae. He started taking cuttings from some of the unique varieties of apples that grew at some of the homesteads, to graft onto dwarf root stock for his heritage orchard. And he got a lot of his information the old-fashioned way: by talking to old-timers about their memories of those first homesteads, and the fruits they used to grow.

Take, for instance, the "Yellow King Apple" Robert got cuttings from. It was growing down on the Niema River in the southwest corner of Washington state.

"They planted it down there, and the reason they had the homestead is they were down there harvesting the giant spruce to build the aircraft for WWI and the ships out of the spruce," Robert explains, "So the guy that originally planted this was one of the guys logging spruce for the war effort."

Or the Royal Anne cherries from the Goerig homestead.

"We used to have a lady that grew up there. She told us which ones were where, which ones her mother planted, and all that cool stuff," Robert remembers.

"She used to invite us in, we’d sit and drink glasses of wine with her, blueberry wine of all things, and talk about apple maggots. It was a beautiful thing," he laughs.

Sometimes he's even discovered apples unlike any he's ever seen. They name the varieties that may be heretofor unclassified apples.

"This one we’re renaming the sunset newton," he says. "It looks like somebody from, you know, France during the watercolor period when they were all drinking wine painted the thing because it looks unbelievable. It’s got pinks and reds and yellows and green. It’s the most pretty apple I’ve ever seen in my life. It tastes pretty good, too. But they’re no longer there."

You see, progress and time aren't kind to lonely old apple trees. A growing population is turning formerly agricultural fields into apartment complexes. Age and lack of care can doom apple trees. Robert even discovered an apple tree that was cut down the next time he went to visit it. The culprit? A hungry beaver. Beavers love the taste of apple bark.

He was able to rescue a couple of little cuttings from the root, and now that tree, too, lives on, keeping sweet memories alive for the next generation and beyond.

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