DANA — Henderson County apple growers have began harvesting early apples amid guarded optimism that the 2014 crop will bring favorable market prices.
Crews fanned out in apple country orchards where the earliest varieties, the yellow Ginger Gold and the popular Gala, have ripened.
"We've just been getting started harvesting," said Jack Ruff, an "Enjoy NC Apples" marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. "The Ginger Golds and Galas are coming in so everything's looking good. My office is at the Farmers Market so we've been getting some apples over here. Fresh market sales and a couple of roadside stands are open."
Last year Henderson County growers harvested a bumper crop but saw prices fall as orchards up and down the East Coast in turn picked big crops. This year's crop is projected to be quite a bit shorter for several reasons. Because of alternate bearing cycle of apple trees, a big crop year is generally followed by a shorter one. Freeze damage from lows in the low 20s in mid April also will cut yield. And the record last summer also hurt the bud-set for this year's crop.
"The indications we're getting is this should be a good year as far as prices and movement" of the crop to market, said Marvin Owings Jr., the director of the Henderson County Agriculture Extension Service. "A number of areas on the East Coast have been affected, as we have, by the frost and freeze, as well as hail damage."
Cold weather crop loss to the north is thought to be worse than it was here.
"From all indications, it's not going to be a bumper crop across the East Coast like it was last year," Owings said.
Edneyville grower Jerred Nix, who has no early varieties in production this year, said he's heard of "so-so" prices — lower than last year's level for early Galas but better than the later-season market when a flood of apples caused prices to plunge.
"Processors are in the 12-cent (per pound) range right now and that's only with one or two companies coming down here so far," he said. "It can go to half cent a pound. We had two extreme variables last year. We had 45-cent Galas early and a half a cent juice at the end of the year."
In 2013, as soon as Galas ripened, a Michigan-based processor was buying truckloads.
"That was Peterson (Farms) buying slicing Galas," Nix said. "This time last year I was picking Peterson Galas for 45 cents. Peterson hadn't bought any Galas down here yet."
Generally, with the North Carolina mountains occupying the southernmost end of the apple growing belt, the first fresh apples off the trees find a good market.
"Early stuff always brings money," Nix said. "They've got to have it right away."
During its annual meeting last winter, the Blue Ridge Apple Growers honored Peterson Farms buyer Jim Robinson as a "Friend of the Apple Industry."
Henderson County apples are on their way to supermarkets now.
"The packers were opening their packing lines toward the end of last week," Ruff said. "They'll be going to some of the chains like Wal-Mart and Ingles. I understand the East Coast got hurt a little more than we did" by the spring freeze. "That really ought to help us if they can't supply as much."
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