Be There When Lightning Strikes


Set your text size: A A A

Shorter crop may bring higher prices

Jerred Nix shows an apple at mid-season. Jerred Nix shows an apple at mid-season.

EDNEYVILLE — Midway through the growing season, Jerred Nix tends the 2014 apple crop with an eye on this year's market and the harvests for years after.

Related Stories


Heavy rain in mid-July forced growers to spray more often to combat the onset and spread of fungus. Henderson County's apple harvest won't be as big as last year's bumper crop but because freeze damage was worse higher up the East Coast the price will likely be better.
Nix has talked informally with suppliers, packers and wholesalers who will buy apples from him and his dad, Jeff Nix. He has made a deal to sell some of the crop to local packer and grower Allan Henderson. But a lot of the buying waits until the crop is closer to ripe.
"Part of them we already know where they're going," he says. "Allan's going to pack some of ours. Like the guys we wholesale to, we'll just wait and see what happens when the time comes. We kind of play it more close to the time so we know if it's any hail or disease."
As the apples have sized up, growers have seen more damage from a mid-April freeze than they recognized at first. The positive flip side of the freeze is that it did far more damage to competing growers from Virginia through Pennsylvania and New York.
"We've got apples," he says. "We don't have a crop nowhere near the size we had last year. That freeze actually hurt more people than we originally thought. Some of the varieties don't have the blooms back from last year. This time of year, when they're setting buds for next year, I think as much rainy weather like we had last year, some of the buds didn't set.
Even so, in many of his blocks, "There's a full crop. We've come through and hand-thinned. There aren't many Red Delicious as last year. They didn't just bud back."
On a lot of his trees, he can find an apple with a yellowish rough-skinned blemish. Finger-nail sized and hard to see back in May, the bad spot is now big as a thumbprint, demoting a fresh apple to juice or process apple.
Farmers can frown or smile. Jerred falls in the latter group.
"The thing you've got to look at with that (damage), or I do, is look how many pretty apples we got," he says. "You might have one bad one — you're going to have one bad one — and you can't sit and dwell on it, like some of the people do.
"I mean, look at the good apples in there," he says, sweeping back a leafy branch to reveal a small parade of healthy red apples. "All these apples right there are good. That right there's Grade A fruit. Yeah, there's freeze damage but the crop's salvageable. By no means is it ruined."

Wire to wire

Nix and a cousin who works with him in the orchard, Mark Nix, have been working a job that looks more like construction than farming.
After erecting salvaged utility poles in the orchard on a slope above Bearwallow Road, Jerred and Mark are stringing wire from pole to pole, part of an innovative growing design called a tall spindle trellis.
"What I want is two foot above the pole," Jerred says, describing the tree height he hopes to achieve before he lets the trees bear. "These are small dwarfing root stocks. You don't ever cut the leader (the trunk) until it gets up there. You don't cut that before it gets to the top."
At a different block of trees, he points to another young tree.
"This is kind of a guinea pig tree," he says. "It's called Ultima Gala.We've never had it before. We're growing it to see what it looks like."
"What it looks like" would also means they want to find out how well it grows, what bugs or disease it might be susceptible to, when its apples ripen.
The Nixes and more than a half dozen other growers here have bought into a growing system advocated by a Cornell scientist named Terence Robinson, one of the leading tree physiologists in the world. The system is based on more expensive vigorously growing trees planted closer together. They're pruned aggressively and trained to grow tall quickly. Trellises like the ones Jerred and Mark Nix are making enable the farmers to tie branches where they want them, for maximum sunlight, efficiency of picking and higher yield. The startup cost for a 50-acre orchard is $450,000 higher than a traditional low-density planting. But the higher yield and lower labor costs can over five years produce a profit $930,000 higher than the low-density approach, Robinson says.
Jerred Nix thinks he can make that happen here.
"We let the orchards go last year," he says. "We knew this was going to take time. You see where we're at now and we've been going at this since the middle of May. We're nearly two months right now, and you see where we're at, and it's every day — except for the days we're mowing or spraying — and you see how much we got to go. We're just trying to take a year to back off, to get these growing like they need to be, and then when we get these growing it's going to be bonzai here in a year or so."
On a larger tree, he points to a limb loaded with apples.
"See how those apples are pulling that limb down? Truly, I want to do that, because it pulls the limb down and I don't have to waste time tying it down," he says. "Problem is if you get too many, it pulls it down there too far."
The Nixes had let the tree bear this year but for most of the trees in the tall spindle system he has used chemical thinner to knock off the apples, forcing the tree to spend its energy growing tree taller, not growing apples. Next year, he says he'll produce a crop from the trees that by then will have reached the 12-foot wire.
"I won't crop them heavy but I'll crop them," he says.

Working the political side

Not every farmer works the political side of the business but some farmers have to. Otherwise, they won't get their voice heard.
Nix, who is current president of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers and vice president of Henderson County's Farm Bureau chapter, was standing at a $150-a-couple fundraising reception for U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows at Burntshirt Vineyards last Monday night. He had just gotten bad news about a new proposal from the government.
"The USDA has said that they're going to allow fresh-pack apples to come in from China, which will kill us," he says. "So I've already went and talked to Mark about that, see if he can get something done about it. That would really hurt us. I said, 'Mark we need to do something about this.' He said, 'I'm already working on it.'"
Nix got an email saying that farmers had until Sept. 15 to comment on the proposal just hours before the Meadows event, which, as luck would have it, the Farm Bureau was sponsoring. "I said, 'Right here is my time.'"
Farmers didn't get much satisfaction at the event when it came to labor, their biggest concern.
Henderson County apple growers, produce farmers and the ornamental industry depend heavily on an experienced agricultural workers, many of them here illegally. The growers favor reform, through an agriculture green card or some other fix, that will ensure an adequate supply of labor.
"Labor is our biggest problem," Nix says. "It goes back to what we said the other night. I was at a meeting with four or five deans from the college over the new plant pathology position (for the Mills River research station). And it's like I told them. It don't matter if I can grow a thousand acres — if I can plant a thousand acres. It don't matter if I can grow a million dollars worth of fruit. If I can't get it picked, I ain't got nothing. It's like I told the deans, we've got to have the labor force."
House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, a beef cattle farmer from Oklahoma, was advertised as the star. Yet in their public comments Lucas and Meadows managed to avoid even a mention of farm labor. And when Meadows invited questions, the room fell silent. Farmers aren't public speakers.