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Thursday Complexity Post
November 7, 2013  

Wild Apples Evolving With Us 

Thousands of varieties of apples flourished in America in centuries past. Apples were something people drank, and the extraordinary varieties of red, green, yellow and purplish fruits, many of them sour, bitter, and unappetizing by themselves, made excellent hard cider and hog feed.    




Rowan Jacobsen, in his Mother Jones story "Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples," writes about the biological evolution of the American apple and the political and social forces that shaped it. He also tells the story of John Bunker, known in Maine as The Apple Guy, whose decades-long mission has been to identify and preserve as many varieties as possible.  


One of the interesting things about apples is that if a tree is grown from seed, its apples won't be anything like apples of its parent tree. Individual seeds in each apple contain genetic instructions for a totally new apple. As Jacobson explains, "An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, each containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree, and the mystery dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a springtime bee."


The Plant Genetic Resource Unit, in Geneva, New York now maintains 2,500 varieties of apple trees collected from all over the world. While the ancient fruit originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, Michael Pollan suggests in his book the Botany of Desire, a Plant's Eye View of the World, that the apple as it dispersed became quintessentially American. It was hardy, grew anywhere, could thrive with no maintenance, and was almost mystically democratic. In the early 1800s when Johnny Appleseed was planting his trees, Pollan writes, "they were a blooming fruiting meritocracy in which every apple seed roots in the same soil and has an equal chance of greatness." Further, Pollan says, hard cider was the buzz of choice in early America, because while the Bible warned against the dangers of the grape, apples even when fermented were considered more innocent. But that view, too, evolved.


Pollan and Jacobsen write that many apple varieties disappeared during Prohibition when trees bearing the best cider apples were chopped down. More diversity was lost with the increasing industrialization of agriculture. To consistently produce sweet, tasty, bright colored apples, farmers had to take a cutting from a tree that produced the fruit with desired trait, and graft it onto living stock. Every McIntosh, Red Delicious and Granny Smith comes from grafting. As industrialization of agriculture increased, so did focus on a few commercially appealing varieties that would withstand long shipment.


The loss of biodiversity puts plants at risk for pests and disease, and today's apples are vulnerable to both. Apples require more pesticides than any other crop, and are hard to grow organically. Bunker studies apples growing in towns, forests and on neighbors' lands, and tries to save rare apples, some of which have blight resistant genetic traits. He estimates he has rescued 80 to 100 varieties, growing grafted trees at his Fedco Nursery, and selling vintage plants through Fedco Trees, a mail order company he founded 30 years ago. Bunker fears our diverse agricultural heritage is in danger not only because of the dwindling number of varieties being commercially grown, but because many new apples like the Sweet Tango are the intellectual property of those who bred them.  


He keeps looking for lost specimens he's heard about from distant visitors and local lore, or read about in old books and farm catalogs. His search for the Fletcher Sweet led him to an elderly resident in the town of Lincolnville who knew of a gnarled ancient tree that grew apples he ate as a child. Bunker cut shoots from what little life was left in the tree, and his new grafted trees produced a juicy green flavorful apple. So he has given some young Fletcher Sweet trees back to Lincolnville. Read the Mother Jones story here.  



Remember PlexusCalls!  


Friday, November 8, 1-2 PM ET

Building Social Connections and Networks Among the Elderly 

Guests: Christine Costello, Elizabeth Stephanski, and Lisa Kimball    



The Business Innovation Factory is working on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded project to explore the "connected aging experience." Join the discussion with BIF's Christine Costello and Eli Stephanski to learn more. BIF began exploring the aging experience in 2006 with its Nursing Home of the Future project and found that the health of our relationships often defined our aging experience and affected everything from eating to planning the day to making financial decisions. And yet, our cultural view of aging is one focused on deteriorating health and the increasing need for care. BIF sees a need for new models that are predicated on notions of health, fueled by relationships, and delivered on a promise of continued meaning and contribution. BIF is researching and interviewing elders to discover more about creating robust networks.  


Christine Costello serves as Design Director at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) and is the Project Manager for the Connected Aging Project. A skilled qualitative researcher and experience designer, Christine leads human-centered design efforts in our Experience Labs, BIF's practice for accelerating research, design and experimentation within education, healthcare, and entrepreneurship. She's responsible for developing the labs design thinking methods, insight development and testing capabilities. At BIF, Christine co-pioneered BIF's participatory design studios (PDS) to facilitate and grow the capabilities of students, teachers, elders and entrepreneurs as innovators. Christine believes participatory design methods-where people themselves play an active role in innovating systems-improve the quality of any experience and produce positive outcomes.


Eli Stefanski serves as Chief Market Maker at BIF, and advisor to the Connected Aging Project. At BIF, Eli is responsible for bringing our real world Experience Labs to market, helping leaders in complex systems disrupt themselves. Most of her work these days is in the Patient Experience Lab. From decreasing infant mortality to improving population health outcomes, the Lab is exploring new models that move beyond sick care into a system of wellness. Eli has spent her career leading and building innovative platforms for social change. At Ashoka, she worked with innovators from South America to Africa to South East Asia to design scalable business models for the products and services that make people's lives better. At GlobalGiving, she was part of the early crowd funding movement, connecting investors with social entrepreneurs.


Lisa Kimball, PhD is an entrepreneur with more than 30 years experience as an organizational consultant with business, government and nonprofit organizations. As CEO of Metasystems Design Group and Executive Producer of Group Jazz she supported the efforts of teams, task forces, communities and organizations and specialized in helping them leverage the power of new technology and social media. She is active in online community work, organizational development (she also serves on the Board of the Organization Development Network) and is skilled in applying complexity-inspired principles. She has worked with hospitals applying Positive Deviance methodology to the problem of eliminating transmission of hospital acquired "superbug" infections. She has trained PD consultants and coaches as well as designing and developing materials to support hospital teams. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology; Cognition & Learning from Catholic University of America where her research focused on problem solving strategies of senior executives in complex systems. Lisa served as Plexus Institute President for three years and continues to serve Plexus as chair for learning programs.


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