Conservation

This Nonprofit Is Saving 4,500 U.S. Apple Varieties

An Oregon group is cloning thousands of lesser-known apple varieties for future generations to enjoy.

When you think of apples, names like Gala, Pink Lady or Honeycrisp are sure to come to mind. But what about King of Tompkins County or Blue Pearmain? These lesser known names are just two of the 15,000 apple varieties that were once grown here in the U.S. Today, only 15 varieties comprise 90 percent of the apples produced throughout the country.

A few passionate apple enthusiasts couldn't bare the thought of so many varieties going extinct. Joanie Cooper, Shaun Shepherd, and Franki Baccellieri make up the staff of Temperate Orchard Conservancy (TOC), a small nonprofit in southwestern Oregon that's preserved over 4,500 varieties of apples, according to Civil Eats.

The group is working to clone every variety so they'll be available to future generations. "Those apples will be here for use and for study, long after any of us are dead and gone," Cooper, the founder of TOC, told Civil Eats.

If the cloning is a success, the team also plans on sending the apple seeds to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. The vault, which can hold up to 2.25 billion seeds from 4.5 million crop varieties, will preserve the seeds in an effort to protect the world's food supply against threats of climate change, war and overpopulation.

RELATED: Here's How Farming Will Work on Mars

A man named Nick Botner was the original owner of the apple trees TOC is cloning. Botner grew his 4,500 apple varieties on his orchard for 30 years until he could no longer care for them. The team knew that the loss of Botner's farm would be a threat to the preservation of these heirloom varieties, so they set about the arduous task of replicating his many trees.

One of the reasons cloning apple trees is so difficult is because you can't guarantee the variety of apple will remain consistent just by planting its seeds. It's also necessary to graft a slim branch of the old tree, known as a scion, onto a stump with a healthy root system from another apple tree.

So far, TOC has cloned 5,000 trees with 3,900 varietals. If everything goes according to plan, Cooper believes they will be able to graft the last few hundred Botner trees by next spring.

The next step will be to move the cloned trees to the location of TOC's permanent orchard in Oregon named Almaty Farm. The word "almaty" is Kazakh for "full of apples," an homage to the country of Kazakhstan where apples originated.

The relocation and planting of the trees also requires each one to be identified. Some varieties are more pest-resistant than others, some have more nutritional value than others, and each tree must be planted next to those with similar harvest times. So far TOC has been able to name about 800 of the 4,500 apple varieties in the collection.

RELATED: Organic Food: What to Know Before You Buy

Whether or not every variety is identified, one thing is certain: The trees will soon begin producing fruit. But as a non-profit, TOC won't be selling the apples to supermarkets. "We'll eventually be hooked up with food banks, and we want to have programs with the Future Farmers of America and 4H, so students can take a block of trees to work and learn on," Cooper said. "It'll be such an advantage for our community."

However, TOC is planning on making scions from their trees available for purchase in 2017, so apple enthusiasts everywhere can join the effort.

WATCH: Why Do We Waste $1 Trillion of Food A Year?