The core of the matter

If you crave a journey straight to the heart of apple country during Hendersonville’s annual celebration of that tasty homegrown comestible, follow your discerning palate to the official Apple Orchard Tour.

This fun, fact-filled event takes folks through the lush countryside of Dana, Edneyville and Fruitland, rural communities just minutes outside Hendersonville that have long been the core of Henderson County’s annual $32 million apple industry, which had its beginnings in the late 1700s.

Today, Henderson County grows some 75 percent of all North Carolina’s apples and is currently ranked seventh among apple-producing counties in the country.

North Carolina Agricultural Extension Agent Marvin Owings, who conducts the annual event, notes that few people realize apple-growing is a year-round endeavor. From seed to supermarket, Owings teaches everything there is to know about the fruit; among other aspects of the industry, guests will take in the history of the apple and its literal and historical growth in this area.

The first stop on the tour is the Apple Variety Block, a demonstration facility that provides tourists with some inside knowledge regarding the special attributes of the more than 100 varieties of apples grown — as well as a sneak peek at the new varieties being developed each year.

“We’ve got over 80 varieties we’re evaluating [this year],” says Owings.

He’ll also explain a little about fluctuations in the industry, as apple growers (there are some 250 in Henderson County) work to adapt to market trends and an ever-shrinking availability of farmland on which to grow their product. For example, in the 1930s, orchards typically contained trees spaced 30 to 35 feet apart in a row, with rows 30 to 35 feet apart, averaging 40 to 50 trees per acre. In contrast, today’s grower — facing a shrinking availability of farmland and a high-volume market demand — plants a high-density orchard, spacing trees 10 to 15 feet apart in rows 16 to 20 feet in width. This significantly cozier construct, averaging some 400 to 500 trees per acre, is composed mostly of a newly developed dwarf stock.

The next stop is C.L. Henderson’s Packing House, the largest such facility in the state.

“They’ll see how the fruit is brought in, how it’s processed, the grading line, how it’s packaged,” Owings explains.

Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard, in Edneyville, is the tour’s last stop. Here visitors will have the opportunity to select their own beauties from Mr. Stepp’s “pick-your-own” orchard (for a separate fee) and shop for all manner of goodies at his roadside stand.

But what participants ultimately take home tends to last way longer than a Red Delicious.

“When we finish with the tour, [people say] they had no idea so much was involved in the production of apples,” concludes Owings.

The Apple Orchard Tour will take place on Friday, Sept. 1. The tour bus departs from the offices of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agency (740 Glover St., in Hendersonville) at 9 a.m. Tickets go for $4 per person. For more info, call (828) 697-4891.

Ripe for the picking

Henderson County’s 2,200-foot elevation — and its fortunate combination of warm, sunny days and cool mountain nights — makes it an ideal climate for growing apples.

Currently, the county boasts 615,000 mature apple trees growing on a total of 5,000 acres, producing approximately four million bushels of apples per year.

The most widely grown varieties are Rome (50 percent), Golden Delicious (25 percent), and Red Delicious (10 percent). Other varieties include Gingergold, Gala, Jonagold and Fuji (15 percent).

Here’s a brief guide to some of the more popular varieties:

Golden Delicious: This golden-colored apple is a favorite for its sweet and juicy flavor. Golden Delicious are good for cooking and baking (especially applesauce) and plain eating.

Granny Smith: Developed from a chance seedling discovered in Australia in 1868, the Granny Smith is a large, tart, bright-green apple popular for eating and baking.

Gala: A reddish-yellow apple that’s a cross between a Coxe Orange Pippin and a Golden Delicious, this one’s excellent for eating and baking.

Gingergold: Developed from a chance seedling found in Nelson County, Va., in 1980, this is a greenish-yellow apple with a pink blush and a sweet flavor.

Fuji: A cross between a Red Delicious and a Ralls Janet discovered in Japan in 1939, this sweet apple has a red blush and green and yellow stripes.

Goldrush: An apple with a firm texture and a unique rich and spicy flavor, this one holds up well in storage.

Honeycrisp: A red apple that is exceptionally crisp and juicy with a well-balanced flavor; also holds up well in storage.

Jonagold: A cross between a Jonathan and a Golden Delicious, this is an all-purpose variety developed in New York state in 1826. The Jonagold is a large red apple with juicy white flesh and an excellent sweet-tart flavor. Great for both eating and baking.

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