Upsetting the apple cart

EDNEYVILLE — A few years ago, Anthony Owens was just as worried as many other local apple growers. The orchard that had been his family’s rock for more than 30 years was looking more and more as if it might tumble out from under him.

Gerber Products Co. had closed its Arden plant in 1998 after 40 years, taking with it a good chunk of the demand for local apples. On the world market, meanwhile, fruit prices were continuing their downward spiral.

As for profits … well, there weren’t any to speak of. Apple producers like Owens’ Windy Ridge Farm were pouring much of their revenue right back into operating expenses.

“We were just getting by,” Owens, 31, admitted recently, overlooking a slope of apple trees down one side of Lamb Mountain.

So in 2001, following a bad spring freeze that took out about half his fruit crop, Owens started scouting around for ways to save the family farm. Increasingly, one word kept cropping up:

Organic.

And Owens listened. Hard.

This August, Owens — who started out viewing organic farmers as “oddballs,” recalled Carolina Organic Growers President Aubrey Raper — became the state’s first certified-organic apple grower.

Apple country

Hendersonville has its annual Apple Festival, while sundry local businesses are named Apple this, or Apple that. The apple is, simply, the region’s prized fruit.

And if you drive south from town along U.S. 25, it really does seem as though all anybody does around here is apples. Fruit markets. U-pick places. Packing facilities.

WNC’s apple season starts in late March, with harvesting typically in September and October. At this time of year, Henderson County’s great swaths of leaf-depleted trees — many of them decades old — resemble something from the Wizard of Oz, their gnarled branches twisted up like a tangle of broken arms.

Still, it’s nothing like it used to be. In 1993, about 10,000 acres of Henderson County land (some of it leased) was in apple trees, said local Cooperative Extension agent Marvin Owings. By 2002, that number was down by half, to 5,000 acres.

In 1993, county apple growers produced upward of 7 million bushels, he continued; in 2002, the bushel count was just above 3.5 million.

Skyrocketing WNC land prices have further complicated the equation, observed Jim Walgenbach, an entomologist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture office in Fletcher.

“It’s difficult to justify growing apples, or whatever you have, on an acre of land — or 20 or 100 acres — just to break even, when you can sell that land for probably an astronomical value,” Walgenbach added.

Owens’ grandfather, Earl, 74, planted his first apple trees roughly 35 years ago, and is still involved in Windy Ridge Farm — along with Owens’ uncle Billy, 50, and cousin Scotty, 21.

Windy Ridge began scaling back its own operations around 1995, reported Owens. At its peak, the orchard covered 100 acres; it’s now down to about 30.

But four of those acres now support five varieties of organic apples — Fuji, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Rome (while Windy Ridge grows the same styles conventionally as well). And next season, the farm plans to begin converting two more acres to organics, Owens revealed.

Meanwhile, the subject of going all-organic, he admitted, has certainly come up.

Money trees

Owens makes no bones about it: He’s in it for the money.

Even five years ago, he would probably have gotten food thrown at him for saying that out loud within earshot of other organic growers, noted Raper of Carolina Organic Growers, a WNC farmers’ collective.

“But now, everybody realizes, ‘Oh, we all need to make money,'” added Raper, Owens’ mentor when he began organic farming. In addition to his COG connection, Raper is also transition coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which has awarded Owens two grants now (the current one is to buy new trees for the older part of his organic orchards).

Many local farmers stand to make the most money hawking their apples themselves, possibly through one of WNC’s countless roadside or curbside markets — though bigger farms are unlikely to move enough fruit this way alone.

Going through retailers (a co-op, possibly, or organic-savvy chains such as Earth Fare or Whole Foods), farmers may unload a lot more apples, because the bigger companies generally like to buy in bulk. But the grower’s price takes a hit, as there’s now a middleman.

Selling conventionally grown fruit to a vendor at the WNC Farmers Market fetches a grower $10-$14 a bushel (that is, 40 pounds), depending on the variety, said Stephanie Wise, a marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture who works with apple sellers at the west Asheville market.

But when Owens took his organics to the French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville this year, they paid about $35 a bushel, he revealed; Earth Fare’s Asheville store, buying in bulk, typically went a couple of dollars less per bushel.

Growers may also opt to sell to processing plants producing apple sauce, baby food and similar products — especially if they want to move a whole bunch of fruit, or if their harvest didn’t turn out looking too pretty.

For conventionally grown apples, the Pennsylvania-based Knouse Foods paid about $3.60 a bushel this year, Owens said. (Per ton — the company’s preferred way to buy — you’d get about $160.)

Selling conventionals for juice is an apple farmer’s last resort, short of not selling them at all; juice-apple prices are now running about $1.40 a bushel, Owens reported.

So, after expenses, you make virtually nothing.

But that price jumps to $6 a bushel for organic juice, he noted.

This year, with all the rain, most of Owens’ conventional apples went to juice anyway. He didn’t even bother trying to retail them: “The market [for conventionals] is shit right now,” Owens said.

But the market for organics of whatever sort is booming, and recently, it’s been expanding every year — though farmers fork out a lot of money (and time) to get in line for that pay window.

Owens harvested roughly 400 bushels of conventionally grown apples per acre this season, he said, which puts him right in line with the county average. However, his crews picked roughly 425 bushels per acre for his organics, he added.

For every acre of conventionally grown apples, Owens figures he shells out $500 a season for pesticides and fungicides; by contrast, spraying a single acre with organic “crop protectants” typically runs about $3,000, he noted.

And bad weather can jack up that figure even more: This year, Owens’ total spraying cost for his organic apples averaged about $4,700, he revealed.

It could have been worse: Owens might easily have had nothing to sell. It was just a pure fluke that Windy Ridge missed the heavy hail on May 4 that destroyed so many Henderson County apples. He could hear the ice pellets pummeling neighboring mountains.

“The man upstairs was certainly looking out for us,” Owens said.

But even weighing all the expenses, Owens insisted, you still can pull down about three times the profit by growing organic.

“If you believe his figures — and I have no reason not to,” said N.C. State plant pathologist Turner Sutton, “he’s … getting a very good return — much better than most of our growers overall.”

Putting a shine to it

Three years ago, Owens joined extension agent Owings’ “on-farm” research project comparing conventional to organic-apple production.

Edneyville-area apple farmers Joel Reed (with about 3 acres in organics) and Dave Stalls (about half an acre) joined two years ago; both are in what’s called the “transition” phase.

Growers must follow strict organic-farming practices for three years before they can be certified organic. During that interim period, the produce can be marketed as “transitional organic.”

Some — but not many — local retailers will pay slightly better prices for “transitional” fruit, noted grower Joel Reed.

The research project’s original spray schedule — using U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved organic “crop protectants” — was the brainchild of Jim Walgenbach and Turner Sutton.

But when Owens first looked into the project, he was unimpressed with the apples being raised. “They looked like shit,” he said. He didn’t think the study’s growers were spraying often enough.

“Most people hear ‘organic,’ they think [the trees] aren’t sprayed at all,” observed Dave Butler of the Sky Top Apple Orchard in Flat Rock, which has 50 acres in conventionals.

Some organic sprays bear fancy names like “pyganic”; others Owens has colorfully dubbed “garlic water” and “fish water.”

Windy Ridge also requires its picking crews to wear gloves and special jump suits while harvesting the organic apples, to reduce blemishing and contaminating the fruit.

As a result of Owens’ success, the research project has modified its original spray schedule — which is based upon a similar study conducted about eight years ago, which concluded that high-quality organic apples couldn’t be grown in WNC, reported extension agent Owings. Back then, however, many of today’s most effective sprays didn’t exist.

In exchange for participating in the current study, growers can get cost breaks — or outright sponsorships — from organic-spray manufacturers (Owens expects to continue in the study for another two years).

And according to both Owens and Owings, the current study’s findings suggest that organic-apple growing is sustainable in WNC — even without such subsidies. Yet many conventional apple farmers remain skeptical.

“It’s cost-effective — if your fruit’s perfect,” allowed Butler of Sky Top.

Fruit hoops

“You can count on one hand the number of organic apple growers in North Carolina,” said Walgenbach.

It’s just not that simple to go organic, much less become a certified grower. The rules are thicker than Owens’ oldest trees, which he’s planning to replace with young, smaller ones that are easier to permeate with organic sprays.

“With this, you’ve got to do your homework,” Owens declared.

After he became convinced that Owings’ on-farm research project, as originally set up, couldn’t produce market-worthy apples, Owens began adapting Michigan State University’s more intensive spray program for himself.

And during Owens’ first year trying his own hand at organics, he called Raper nearly every day with questions, the COG president remembered with a chuckle.

At that time, Owens was also beginning the vital step of self-marketing, consulting local retailers for tips, and phoning organic-spray manufacturers and asking them, point blank, for assistance, Raper recalled.

One thing about Owens, the COG president declared: “He’s done his homework — and more.”

Organic fruit trees, for example, must be at least 55 feet from the nearest conventionally grown ones; Owens has about a 100-foot buffer.

Yet distance alone doesn’t prevent trace amounts of unwanted chemicals from landing on organic trees. Owens sprays his conventionals at night, he said, when there’s less wind and higher humidity, so the sprays fall straight down. (The organic-licensing inspector not only checked Windy Ridge’s buffer zones, but everything from chemical storage to possible equipment leaks.)

“It’s [all] a pain in the ass, no question about it,” Owens said with a grin. “But it’s a surreal experience.”

Owens received his organic certification through North Carolina Crop Improvements (one of many licensing agencies across the country). The Raleigh-based nonprofit charged him close to $300 — offset this year (and possibly next year) by an N.C. Department of Agriculture grant, which reimburses growers’ certification expenses up to $500, noted the agency’s Doug Sutton.

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