When she was a little girl, Danielle Stepp McCall remembers that after school, the bus would drop her, her sisters and her cousins off at Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard. The third-generation — now raising a fourth — 70-acre working farm in Hendersonville is now celebrating its 50th anniversary as a U-pick apple orchard.
“We would play in the apple house, build forts out of bushel baskets and sit in Papaw’s chair in the office and pretend to be working,” says McCall. “Now, I’m here all the time, doing a little bit of everything all season long.”
The season she refers to is apple picking season. At Stepp’s, that season runs from mid-August when the Ginger Gold, Gala and Honeycrisps are ready until the Granny Smith’s and Pink Ladies — last of the 22 varieties in the 38-acre orchard — are plucked off the trees on Oct. 31. Papaw is her late paternal grandfather, J.H. Stepp, who with his wife, Yvonne, moved their family onto the farm in the early ’60s and called it Hillcrest Orchard to honor original owner and distant cousin Polk Hill.
Like many of the orchards in Henderson County, the Stepps depended on the juice and processing market to sell their apples. But in 1969, they turned the informal practice of allowing the community to come at the end of the season to glean apples into a formal U-pick apple orchard.
Son Mike Stepp and his wife, Rita, (Danielle’s parents) returned to the farm full time in 2003, adding school tours, wagon rides and a U-pick pumpkin patch where visitors can tote home a conventional orange pumpkin or more showy varieties like the Warty Goblin, Blue Doll and Porcelain Doll. This year, in celebration of five decades in business, their 5-acre corn maze was mowed to reveal an aerial view of a huge apple with the number 50 at the center.
Offseason, every one of the hundreds of trees is pruned, the apples on the ground are raked and chopped to become compost for the following year, and the soil is fertilized. Though the picking season is short, McCall says apples picked in October can be enjoyed for months when properly kept.
“Don’t wash them but put them in an airtight bag, and put the bags in the refrigerator. Everyone in our family has an extra fridge at home for apples,” she notes with a laugh. “When you take one out of the bag, do it quick so you don’t expose the rest to oxygen, which will break them down. My mom says she ate her last Pink Lady in July this year.”
At ncapples.com, Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association lists five U-pick apple orchards in Henderson County: Stepp’s, Grandad’s Apples N’Such, Justus Orchards, Skytop Orchard and Coston Farm and Apple House. Check individual websites for locations, seasonal operating hours and services offered.