Waynesville sings the praises of the wild ramp. Tabor City touts the glories of the illustrious sweet potato. And Henderson County puts on a four-day extravaganza in honor of the most versatile of fruits, the apple.
Harvest festivals are a tradition as ancient as the apple itself. Communities across the country — and around the world — host annual events to celebrate the end of the growing season. (In Japan, there are even extra festivals held in the spring to pray for a good crop, and summer ceremonies aimed at warding off disease.)
The Henderson County version of that custom — the North Carolina Apple Festival — runs this Labor Day weekend. Its host of apple-centric events is expected to draw 250,000 to 300,000 people to Hendersonville and environs, notes Apple Festival spokesman and Henderson County Manager David Nicholson. Community-club breakfasts, live music, an orchard tour, a downtown parade and a family-focused Main Street fair are among the highlights.
But just like staging a theme party, certain pitfalls come with building an entire festival around a single crop. And foremost among them? Coping with the whims of Mother Nature. Reflecting the realities of farming itself, the wrong kind of weather can wreak havoc on a festival that celebrates a particular harvest.
Of course, that doesn’t seem to stop anybody. If there’s a fruit or vegetable to be picked, there’s undoubtedly a festival to rejoice in the picking of it.
Not just yam-mering about the weather
In the small southeastern North Carolina town of Tabor City, Yam Festival Secretary/Manager Cynthia Nelson is getting a bit worried about all the rain they’ve been having — and its effect on her county’s sweet-potato crop. (According to the Web site of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at N.C. State University, the two terms can “generally [be] used interchangeably,” although the yam is really a white, starchier version of its sweet, orange cousin.)
Held Oct. 18-26 this year, the N.C. Yam Festival traditionally lures about 10,000 people on parade day to a town with only 2,509 people, Nelson reports. Along with crowning a yam queen, princesses and other sweet-potato royalty, volunteers stage a street festival and hold a recipe contest and “Taste of Tabor” dinner for 300 to 400 people (featuring sweet potatoes in a variety of guises).
“We always kind of hold our breath close to that time,” admits Nelson. “We do need to have plenty of that crop to have the festival. We really don’t want to go and purchase them. We do want home-grown sweet potatoes.”
Years ago, the capriciousness of spring in the mountains prompted N.C. Apple Festival organizers to switch seasons on the annual event, which began its long run as the Apple Blossom Festival back in 1947.
“You can’t time the apple blossoms,” observes Nicholson.
As a result, the festival has centered around Labor Day weekend since 1949. But organizers have had to do a bit of a dance with that date, too, since this actually marks the beginning of the harvest for most varieties in Henderson County. But that just means that more apple growers can actually participate in the festival, Nicholson observes. And organizers encourage this by setting aside free booth space for growers to offer the literal fruits of their labor to the public.
This year, however, hail storms and excessive rain throughout Henderson County have put a dent in the local apple crop, reports Agricultural Extension Agent/Henderson County Apple Agent Marvin Owings.
“We’ll have plenty of good quality apples this year, but we’re not going to have the volume that we typically do,” Owings says, referring to the overall harvest.
The good news, Owings says: “[Festival-goers] probably won’t notice any difference.”
Festivals on the on-ramp
The vagaries of Mother Nature also can put a kink in the harvest of wild ramps.
In nearby Waynesville, American Legion Post 47 puts on its signature Ramp Festival each year on the first Sunday in May to raise money for charitable ventures, says Post 47 historian/ramp-festival volunteer Frank Lauer. Just before the event, the post rounds up a team of volunteers to find, harvest, clean and prepare the ramps (members of the leek family that are related to onions and garlic) for 2,000 or so visitors.
“It all depends on the weather, that’s your big factor,” reports Lauer. “That echoes any crop. The only thing I can tell you is, just hope and pray every year.”
And because the ramp grows wild — and takes seven years to reach maturity — ramp harvesters know better than to visit the same spot too often.
“You’d basically just be picking yourself out of a crop,” explains Lauer.
Unlike the inoffensive apple — or even the mellow sweet potato — even ramp lovers admit it’s an acquired taste.
“Once in a blue moon, I’ll grab one and just eat,” declares Lauer. “But I tell you what: They’re stout — very stout.”
This weekend, however, the ubiquitous apple gets all the glory.
Henderson County ranks as North Carolina’s top apple producer (contributing about 3 million bushels in 2002), and the festival will offer up the wholesome fruits in every way imaginable.
Get ’em while you can.
The 57th Annual North Carolina Apple Festival runs Friday, Aug. 29 through Monday, Sept. 1 in and around downtown Hendersonville. For a complete schedule of events, check out www.ncapplefestival.org. (For more on the N.C. Yam Festival, see www.discovercolumbus.org/festivals. And for the latest on next spring’s Ramp Festival, call American Legion Post 47 at (828) 456-8691.)