Slice of life

Scorched by lingering drought and rock-bottom wholesale prices, local apple farmers are selling more apples from stands. They’re offering customers juicy treats — savings, the chance to pick their own fruit and to request certain varieties.

Expanded customer service is enabling small-time farmers to stay in business, bucking the trend of growers selling their land for development, and, in the process, letting them try out organic farming and other strategies.

Right now, apple harvest is at its peak in Henderson County, the nation’s seventh-biggest apple-producing county. The county’s 200 or so growers produce two-thirds of North Carolina’s apples, from 615,000 trees on 7,000 acres.

Samples of the bounty will come from more than a dozen growers at the North Carolina Apple Festival in downtown Hendersonville this weekend, and you’ll find apples in roadside markets in Edneyville and elsewhere in Henderson County for about another two months. Since they sell directly, growers can offer prices much less than what you’ll find in groceries, according to North Carolina Extension Service apple-farm agent Marvin Owings Jr. Whole fruit at the festival should go for around $16 per bushel, up $2 from last year because of rising costs. Prices are suggested by the Blue Ridge Direct Market Association, which lists 32 direct sellers at www.ncapples.com.

On the brink

Marketing is up — including a video shown on cable TV which touts apples as healthy for hearts and the local economy. But rainfall, crop size and prices have plummeted. Last year’s drought conditions produced just 43 percent of the usual crop — 1.7 million bushels instead of the projected 4.1 million, Owings says. Apple sales in ’01 totaled $12 million — far short of the previous year’s $28.4 million. This year’s harvest should be 90 percent, Owings says, though drought and a late-spring freeze stunted growth for Gala apples (Crispin/Mutsu and the ever-popular Granny Smith varieties are closer to their normal size).

However, markets have worsened in recent years. Gerber, for example, closed its Skyland processing plant in 1998. Out-of-state shipping boosts farmer costs, while they get low-balled by processors and supermarkets, Owings explains.

“Growers are making what we did 20 years ago,” notes local farmer David Butler. “Middle men eat up profit. And groceries want apples before they’re ready.” The result, he explains, is that they don’t taste as good.

“It’s a struggle. We can’t make it with what the juice market and processing bring,” concurs farmer Ken Justus, from Clear Creek. Underpriced imports hurt — Justus recently cut orchard acreage and began retailing.

And then, inevitably, family-farm futures fade. Josh Staton, 20, works on his father Richard’s farm in Upward. “As long as apples sell, I’d like to farm. But if you can’t sell apples, ain’t no use growin’ ’em,” Josh notes. To survive the last decade, growers shifted from selling mostly processed fruit, to marketing equal amounts of processed and fresh, Owings reveals.

“I see my country here”

Drought stunts apples since they’re mostly water. Smaller apples are devalued for juice and are completely worthless if they fall below processing standards — usually 2 3/4 inches wide, says Owings. Rainfall in Hendersonville is 63.66 inches (over a year’s worth) below normal as the result of four-and-a-half years of drought, reports private forecaster Paul Speranza, who’s predicting a dry autumn this year.

However, some local farmers have beaten the odds. After a soil and leaf analysis, Justus did extra fertilizing and weeding to compensate for the lack of rain. “We don’t have the size we should have, but it’s surprisingly good,” he says.

The pick-your-own-fruit service is crucial to the survival of many local growers. David and Lindsey Butler started that back in 1980, after 13 years of wholesaling. Their 50-acre Sky Top Apple Orchard is in Zirconia, atop a scenic, wooded mountain.

“As the commercial market faded, we saw potential in you-pick,” David says. They got the idea after tourists discovered their orchard. “They’d ask to walk through and pick a few apples,” Lindsey recalls. It caught on as an attraction, and today, half of their customers pick their own fruit.

Enver Vrazalica of Charlotte regularly picks apples at Sky Top. “I see my country [here],” says the native Bosnian, who grew apples in his homeland’s rural, mountainous setting.

In recent years, the Butlers have added a picnic area and farm tours — a petting zoo, an educational area with murals depicting apple-growing’s four seasons, a tractor ride and a three-pound bag of fruit are all included in the tour fee.

Lindsey says, “We want children to enjoy an orchard, and families to come back and see us.”

2002 North Carolina Apple Festival

The North Carolina Apple Festival, now in its 56th year, is the largest Labor Day gala in the Southeast, drawing an estimated 250,000 people to downtown Hendersonville (approximately half an hour south of Asheville, off I-26) for four days of music, crafts, apple vendors, and numerous satellite activities.

The festival happens Friday, Aug. 30 through Monday, Sept. 2. On Friday, from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service will offer an apple-orchard tour, which leaves from the NCCES parking lot at 740 Glover St. Tickets are $4. For more information about the tour, call (828) 697-4891. For a complete list of Apple Festival happenings, check out the activities grid in this week’s issue, or log onto www.ncapplefestival.org.

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