An apple a day: Good for the farmers, too

“If people come out to the Hendersonville street fair, they’re hopefully going to see lots of apples,” says David Nicholson, executive director of the North Carolina Apple Festival.

courtesy N.C. Apple Festival

It might sound like Nicholson is stating the obvious, but this year, unlike in most of the festival’s previous decades, seeing lots of apples (especially locally grown fruits) is a bit tricky. Hence the “hopefully” bit. Unseasonably warm temperatures early this spring cajoled Western North Carolina’s apples trees into bloom, only to have those delicate buds wiped out by a subsequent three-night freeze. The annual crop, which has helped establish the area as the state’s leading apple-growing region, was nearly totaled.

“Many years go by where there will be a freeze in one area, or hail damage in another area, that will affect certain farmers,” Nicholson explains. “But this year, it’s fairly widespread across the crop.” In fact, it’s the worst setback sustained by WNC’s apple growers since a similar freeze in March of 1955, which left $1 million worth of damage in its wake.

Still, the show (or festival, in this case) must go on. In a business where a commercial tree takes most of a decade to reach full production, apples are far from a fly-by-night venture. And now, more than ever, the area’s growers need the support of local consumers.

“Anything local people can do to come in and support the growers, that’s great,” says Sonya S. Hollingsworth of Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard in Hendersonville. “If the people will still come and buy what apples and other products we normally sell, then everybody should be able to make it.”

Enter agritourism. Like the Apple Festival itself, agritourism supports agricultural businesses when homegrown products alone aren’t paying the bills. Agritourism ventures showcase farm-made foods and entice the public with entertainment, treats, crafts and activities—exactly what Hendersonville’s Apple Festival has been doing for 61 summers. Or, as Nicholson puts it, “Sixty-one-derful years.”

But what happens when the Apple King Parade grinds to a halt, the vendors pack up and the band calls it quits? Apple growers, especially this year, still need to attract customers to their orchards; and that’s where creative side businesses crop up.

Coston’s Apple House in Hendersonville offers tours, wagon rides and seasonal gifts. Davis & Son Apples in Lawndale, N.C., leads educational tours during August and September. There’s also a custom-picture-framing and gift shop on the premises. Grandad’s Apples n’ Such in Hendersonville sells crafts and boasts its own llama. Lawndale-based Knob Creek Orchards and Hendersonville’s McConnell Farms both sell homemade ice cream. Mountain Fresh Apples, also in Hendersonville, offers up cabbage, pumpkins, jellies, cider, molasses and honey in its harvest.

“The main point of agritourism is to help a farmer increase his or her income by diversifying into value-added activities,” explains Martha Glass, agritourism manager for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. She’s telling area apple growers to advertise that they’re open for group or school field trips, and to be honest about the state of their crop. “School children aren’t disappointed when they don’t see a tree full of apples,” Glass says. “They don’t know what to expect.”

In fact, Hollingsworth has found that children often enjoy the school-sponsored field trips so much they bring their parents back.

Glass claims that the agritourism industry is discovering a demographic of 30- to 40-year-old parents who’ve never been on a farm, so orchard-destination trips aren’t just for kids. “People love it,” she says. “They love to go up there to have picnics. They love to get back to nature.”

Grandad’s Apples n’ Such’s Leslie Lancaster, whose husband comes from three generations of apple farmers, says her farm was built for agritourism. “We have a corn maze and a small petting zoo with a llama. Every year we add something new.” Lancaster is watching her business grow exponentially each year, thanks to additional income from side crops like Halloween-ready pumpkins.

As Glass puts it, “You don’t have to be a Disneyland to be an agritourism farm.”

Really, agritourism existed long before the sleek, marketable label was attached to the practice in the 1980s. Hollingsworth’s father started in the apple business as J.H. Stepp & Sons packing house around World War II. By the 1970s, Stepp was looking to supplant the high-pressure work of packing with a less labor-intensive endeavor, so he turned the orchard into a you-pick. 

Pick-your-own, whether it’s strawberries, peaches or Christmas trees, has long been popular with a nature-dabbling public. It’s a family-friendly way to get outdoors, get a little exercise and have something to show for the effort at the end of the day.

For the Stepp orchard, the venture was so successful that adding new services to entice more customers just made sense. “You’ve just got to be realistic about how much the new venture’s going to cost you,” Hollingsworth notes. “With the school tours, my sister-in-law had been a school teacher, so she plans all the tours and does the scheduling. The main investment was the wagon.

“It’s really nice to see people come and do what you thought might work, she adds. “It’s fulfilling.”

The Historic Orchard at Altapass took a similar idea a step further. Divided by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the centuries-old farm was saved from ruin by current owners Kit Trubey and Bill and Judy Carson. The Orchard at Altapass is now a preservation project featuring hayrides, story telling, butterfly tagging, mountain music and a gift shop. Oh, and heirloom apples, too. 

A little creativity goes a long way when it comes to supplementing crop loss, but agencies like the Cooperative Extension and NCDA don’t want the farmers to face these challenges alone. NCDA’s Web site includes an online market called the General Store where area growers can advertise their various services and products, from berries to baked goods, from field trips to wedding destinations.

According to Glass, when the United States Department of Agriculture first did an agritourism survey in the 1950s, participating farms in N.C. numbered about 30. There are now more than 300 listed with the NCDA’s General Store. Similarly, the Agritourism Networking Association, begun in February 2006, has already swelled from 30 farmers to more than 250. Using online resources, farm fans can plan day and weekend jaunts to the countryside for a variety of experiences.

“That’s what North Carolina’s Commerce Department would like for people to do: Take a trip within 50 miles, spend the weekend, stay in a B&B, go to an agritourism farm, go to a pottery studio, go to a bluegrass concert and spend money locally,” Glass says.

The N.C. Apple Festival offers just such an opportunity over Labor Day weekend. Beyond downtown Hendersonville’s street fair, food vendors, apple sellers and entertainment (the Buddy K. Big Band and the Kenya Safari Acrobats perform, among others), there are also apple-themed events (breakfasts, road races, a kiddy carnival an orchard tour and more) around the area all weekend long.

The North Carolina Apple Festival is held in downtown Hendersonville from Friday, Aug. 31, to Monday, Sept. 3. Street Fair hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday. Entertainment runs to 10 p.m. nightly. Info: 697-4557.

Visit to learn more about agritourism in N.C.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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