The N.C. Apple Festival marks its 74th anniversary this year, but like everything else planned for 2020, the celebration will unfold differently from its traditional Labor Day weekend takeover of downtown Hendersonville. This year, there will be no King Apple Parade, no live entertainment, no Kiddie Carnival and no grower booths brimming with appleliciousness.
“We couldn’t have a festival with 50,000 people,” says David Nicholson, executive director of the festival. “We are canceling the large events but still celebrating apples. We want people to know they can still come to our community and buy fresh apples from a local grower.”
The 20-plus varieties of apples grown in Western North Carolina — many in orchards in Henderson County — are following various ripening schedules from late July through November. Local farms that rely on tourists to purchase prepicked apples on-site or pick their own are stressing that they have plenty of room for quarantine-weary families itching to get out and roam their orchards.
“We opened a little early this year because we noticed people are eager to find something to do in the fresh air,” says David Butler, who owns Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock with his wife, Lindsey Butler. “It is safe to come to a 125-acre apple orchard to pick your own.”
Like other orchards, Sky Top has added COVID-related precautions. “We require masks in the building,” he says. “We used to give you a basket for picking, then would put your apples in a bag to take home. This year, we’re selling a beautiful basket with your apple purchase, so it’s a one-touch operation.”
Justus Orchard in Hendersonville is open daily for U-pick 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and offers a bakery and limited children’s activities on weekends. “People pay for the size box they want, pick and carry that box home,” says Don Justus, fourth of five generations working the farm. Justus says perennial favorite varieties Gala and Honey Crisp will be ripe for pickin’ by the third week of August, and the orchard’s Facebook page lists other varieties’ availability.
Creasman Farms would have spent its 22nd consecutive Labor Day Weekend at the festival, says farm manager Colby Creasman Buchanan. Instead, the Hendersonville farm will stage a mini-fest of its own, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Sept. 4-6. “We’ll have U-pick apple bags, baked goods, cider slushies, two local craft vendors and a daily food truck,” she says. Creasman also welcomes U-pickers 1-5 p.m. Sundays in September and October.
Nicholson points out that the festival website, ncapplefestival.org, links to the event’s 14 growers with instructions on how to safely visit their farms and purchase their apples. He says he intends to visit each one on his personal mission to find the best apple pie and reassure farmers that the festival will return. “We are already planning for our 75th anniversary in 2021,” he says. “We’ll be back bigger than ever.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 20, to accurately reflect the hours of operation for Creasman Farms.