Ready, set… pick!

Don Justus has seen people do just about anything to take home some of his apples. In his youth, ladies from a visiting church group refused brown bags, opting instead to fashion their bloomers into larger, sturdier carriers.

Recently, a family who’d driven up from Columbia, S.C., donned matching rain boots, coats and hats, and picked apples together in the midst of a heavy storm.

As a fourth-generation Henderson County apple farmer, Justus knows how to grow a delicious apple. He grows, in fact, around 18 different apples. It's his knowledge that keeps generations of families coming back for more. “They make it an annual trip,” he says. “A fun day out in the country with the family.”

Justus' mother started a u-pick option for their apple business in 1968. Some visitors pick themselves, while others come for pre-picked pecks.

The majority, he notes, come for one of Justus Orchard’s Mutsus varieties, a mix of a Golden Delicious and Japanese Indo. The popular apple was patented in Japan in 1949. As Henderson County Extension Agent and apple specialist Marvin Owings recalls, the first commercial Mutsu was planted in our area by a Saluda grower in the late 1970s. Justus says that Mutsus aren’t quite sweet as Goldens, and not as tart as Granny Smiths. His personal favorite, however, is the Jonagold. Like the Mutsu, it’s not too sweet or too tart. And, it’s a good variety for both storing and baking.

If you’re looking to make a pie or applesauce, don’t limit yourself to just the Jonagold or another similar apple. “The more variety you throw into the pot, the better the flavor’s going to be,” Justus encourages.

Justus Orchard’s newly expanded bakery utilizes a mix of apples for baked goods. Justus and his family started making fried pies about three years ago in response to visitor requests. Since the pies were such a big hit, they’re now a permanent fixture. The orchard bakers also turn out apple cider donuts, made with their Justus Orchard cider. It's just another tasty treat you can pick up while apple-picking.

Think twice, though, before stereotyping Justus’ wife, Margo, as the baker. “This is a family operation, and we all do multiple jobs,” he shares. “One day she may be in the kitchen baking, the next day I may be in the kitchen while she’s out on the forklift.”

Their son, Cory, is also a vital farmhand. “When he was a child, he would rather ride on the tractor than play video games or watch TV,” Justus says. Now 21 and finishing basic law enforcement training, he has intentions of keeping a police schedule that also allows him to be the fifth generation on the farm.

Don’t be surprised if, while up at the apple house buying a fried pie, cider, or even boiled peanuts, you run into the third Jutus generation, Don’s mother and father. They’re still involved, but the orchard looks much different now than it once did under their care. “My grandfather may have planted 25 to 30 trees per acre, and they’d get as big as a maple tree,” Justus says. “My dad had 150 to an acre, and now we plant over 500 to an acre.” Today’s 30-acre orchard is planted with dwarf trees, which, he notes, are easier to pick and manage.

The apple house and orchard are fully ramped up now, with the majority of their apple varieties available (see an abbreviated ripening chart in the sidebar). You’ll find sign markers indicating the variety at the end of each row, should you venture out to pick your own. Well, at least Justus hopes you will. “For whatever reason, [the signs] have a tendency to grow legs and walk off every fall.”

Justus also offers u-pick and already picked blackberries and peaches. While there may be a few blackberries left, the peaches would be a stretch to find now, he says. Do mark your calendars for their u-pick pumpkins, another new addition this year. The patch will be ready for visitors in October.

— Maggie Cramer is the Communications Coordinator at ASAP (asapconnections.org). Contact her at maggie@asapconnections.org.

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