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TREE TO TABLE: Apple crop looks good so far

Jerred Nix examines apple blossoms in April. Jerred Nix examines apple blossoms in April.

EDNEYVILLE — A Wednesday in late April was what you might call a typical day of farming. Instead of working in the apple orchard, Jerred Nix and his father, Jeff, had driven back and forth to Greenville, S.C., to pick up a rebuilt alternator for their New Holland tractor.

 

"Par for the course," Jerred says. "Last Monday I think we tore up everything we had. It was one of them Mondays. Everything we touched broke."
As farming problems go, a tractor that won't crank is a relatively minor bump in the road. Henderson County farmers face challenges of weather, market prices, labor and government rules. A spring freeze like the ones in 2012 and 2007 can wipe out the crop. This year a cold snap in mid April threatened to do it again. It got down to 24 degrees in one of the orchards that Jerred and his father grow on Old Clear Creek Road. The crop survived. Across the county, so far things look OK.
Jerred walks through the orchard with a visitor, breaking apart apple blossoms to reveal a tiny apple, no bigger than a pinhead. There's still 12 weeks to go before picking time but it's a victory when the apple farms get through the spring without a killing freeze.

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The Nixes and their crew of farmworkers are busy now planting trees that will bear in three or four years.

Tree2Table sigOne day in May, Jeff, who is 50, rides up and down the rows, drilling holes for the "second leaf" trees they ordered from Washington state. This is investment time. The Nixes are among the Henderson County farmers in the vanguard of newer techniques. They're planting trees in a spacing called 5-by-14 blocks — 5 feet between trees, 14 feet between rows. The trees are spaced close together and pruned more aggressively and trellised so more light reaches the fruit. It takes discipline. The Nixes are training the trees to grow high first, sacrificing an early crop in year one or year two for a bigger crop in years 3 through 20.
Jerred, 26, examines a young Gala tree, about head high. It could bear fruit this year but he doesn't want it to. He's used a chemical thinning spray to knock off the baby apples. He wants to direct the growing energy into tree height, not apple creation.
JerredBabyAppleJerred Nix shows a baby apple in June."See that limb and that limb," he says, pointing to bigger limbs about two thirds of the way up. "Next year, that limb's coming off. Strictly because — and here's the thing that I've learned. See this limb here, it's bigger than all these? Because it's bigger, it's getting more nutrients than all these limbs; therefore that limb's coming out next year.
"At this stage, I want 'em up, I don't want 'em out. When they get up, then they can go out."
"Up," in this case, is 10 to 12 feet high, the top wire of the Nixes' trellis system. It's held up by power poles they bought from a salvage company in Charlotte. Jerred Nix and a cousin, Mark Nix, chainsawed the 30- to 40-foot poles into 14-foot lengths. Last week, Mark Nix operated a tractor to lift the poles from a trailer, maneuver them into holes Jerred had augured. Mark turned the poles upright while four farmworkers guided them into holes, straightened them and tamped dirt with shovel handles to firm them up.
With the older trees, the Nixes will send crews to pick the outside apples that have turned red.
"Early in the year we'll come through and pick Galas, with just the color," he says. "That's why we're getting away from this size tree, going to the small tree, so it's uniform. You could come back this fall — these apples right here," he says, holding up the outside of the branch, would be ripe. "These apples in here" — close to the trunk — "are not going to have color until you get all these (outside apples) off. Then the light can penetrate through. Then they'll have color. It's what we call spot picking.
"This (new) style of tree, it's going to make it a more uniform apple, all the way through the tree, you may not have to do it. I mean we probably still will, size-wise, but it won't be color-wise like we have before."
Like any business it's a numbers game. More apples of higher quality, requiring less labor, mean a higher profit.

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"Watch the pole, watch the pole!" Mark Nix shouts when a pole starts to tilt. The heavy pole could hurt or kill a man.
"It is dangerous," Jerred says. "It's getting toward the end of the day, and this is the last pole we're doing today, and everybody's ready to go to the house."
They've planted about 100 poles today for the trellis system in this part of the orchard on the family property on Bearwallow Road. It's been hot and hard work.
JerredTopWireJerred Nix points to top wire he wants trees to reach.The Nixes are spending now to cash in later. The question is, How soon do they start to pick the trees? They could pick as early this year on these third-year trees but instead they plan to force the trees to grow higher one more year. A friend doubted Jerred, said the trees won't grow that fast. He grins at the challenge.
"I'm going to do my best to hit the top wire this year, and I ain't going to miss it by much," he says, pointing to how close the treetop had reached. One farming expert "wanted me to keep a few apples on the tree, and that's why he said I'd never reach the top wire." A crop this year is "what I don't want because it'll slow the growing of the tree down. I want the tree to grow and then crop it" next year.
With thousands of dollars an acre tied up in buying, planting and spraying young trees and building a trellis structure, the temptation is to pick apples as soon as the trees can grow marketable apples.
"You can start to get some of your income back a little quicker," Jerred acknowledges. "But it's a win-lose situation. Do you want to slow your tree down and make a little bit of income or do you want to make the tree get to the size it's going to be, crop it heavier next year and get more income?"
"I hope to start 'em next year. By the fourth or fifth year they'll be in full production."

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Jerred's father, Jeff, who is also a grading contractor, drives up to the orchard in his pickup. The Nixes have bought in together to this newer system, which Jerred learned in part from growing practices he saw in Geneva, N.Y., and from other study. Other growers in Henderson County have adopted the trellis and tighter spacing approach.
JeffNixJeff Nix repairs a tractor."The quicker that tree gets to the top of that wire, the quicker I can make money," Jeff says. "The third year you start a little bit, the fourth year a little bit more. The fifth year you better hammer."
"My goal is a thousand but I'd settle for 900 (bushels an acre) if they bring good money," he says. "Everything's fresh."
Almost all the Nixes' crop is in fresh fruit —high-quality apples packed for sale in grocery stores or farmers markets. Some orchards grow apples that will be processed for apple sauce or apple juice.
Would he prefer never to pick process apples?
"No I'm not going to say that because there's different processing now," Jeff says. "For slices, putting it in these new slice packs that go to Wendy's or McDonald's or Subway, that's pretty good money. But as far as just grow apples for sauce, the price is still too cheap to grow for sauce."

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At least for now, the Nixes forecast a good crop. They don't know yet what kind of price they'll get and can't know until the sun and the rain ripen apples. One key is the Gala, an early apple that Henderson County growers can pick and ship before their competitors in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan or New York.
The Nixes had spotty damage from an April frost and hail damage in part of the orchard on Bearwallow Road.
"I've noticed a little bit (of damage) in here riding today," Jerred says. "I can see a spot or two here and there. Hail pecks. Riding up through all day I ain't seen but two or three hail pecks. It's just something that's caught my eye."
On one tree, he looks for some of the casualties.
"Right there's your freeze damage, frost damage," he says, pointing to a tiny discolored crack. "The apple's still good but a lot of times if it don't kill the apple you'll have a rusty rough spot like that. That's what that is." Grading wise, that apple will be demoted to a process apple. "You can't pack it," he says.
ApplePeckHail storm left an apple peck.He pokes around in two or three trees, which have plenty of apples. To the untrained eye, they look fine.
"Right there's your hail peck," he says, pointing to a tiny but, on close examination, visible dent. Another demotion.
How Nix spots the blemish from 12 feet away while on a bumpy tractor ride down an orchard row can only be explained as an acquired skill. He glances over. The sun hits the baby apple just right. He spots the imperfection, a peck, about the size a chicken would make.
"See that little spot," he says. "That's your hail peck." On a ripe apple in a hard hailstorm — which the apple country is always at risk of — the result is worse. "It'll tear 'em up so bad it'll look like you took a knife to 'em," he says.
Is hail damage worse when the apples are ripe than now?
"Yeah and no," Jerred says. "It's bad either way. This time of year you don't have as much money in 'em. But we are the first of June so we've still got quite a cost."

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Right now, the Nixes don't know who they'll sell to or how much they'll get a bushel. There's no commodities market for fresh apples.
"Normally you don't really have a contract," Jerred says. "All mine is — we sell it as the year progresses. Just go out and talk to buyers, people we've known over the years and people we've contacted," some from out of state, some local. "We already started talking about it this year, telling them what we got, what we don't got, what damage we got. We'll keep them updated until harvest time. Normally they'll come out and look at 'em and determine whether they want to buy them."
So far, so good. Hail damage has been minor. The farm's not drowning in rain like last year. Nor is it in drought. On a slope below Bearwallow Mountain, the apples grow bigger by the day.