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What is this apple we celebate?

Gala apples have good color and flavor this year. Gala apples have good color and flavor this year.

This weekend, people come from near and far to celebrate the apple at the North Carolina Apple Festival. Here's a look at what goes into growing the fruit we honor.

 

In the early spring, during his master pomology class, Marvin Owings Jr. enjoys placing a young apple bud under a microscope and watching students marvel at nature's glory.

By late march, "right before green tip," the apple tree has formed buds, and in each bloom there are usually five tiny apples — complete with seed pockets and leaves.
"To see all that neatly packaged in one bud, it really is phenomenal," he says. "All five of those blooms in that bud, plus the leaves, it's all in a very neat, very compact package. It's fascinating."
From the car windshield it looks like everything in an apple orchard happens by itself. After all, an apple grower does not plow a field, dig a hole and drop in a tomato set. Cartoon figures show Johnny Appleseed handing out seeds from a tote bag. That's not what happens either.
If you drive through the apple country past the dormant trees in winter you probably will not see the growers at work but they are. So are bees.
MarvinOwingsMarvin Owings Jr."The quality is dependent on a lot of things — environment, for one, whether or not you have good weather during pollination," says Marvin Owings, the Cooperative Extension director. "We had a lot of rain during bloom this year, so bees were not able to be active during the whole bloom season."
Mites have wiped out a large number of feral bees. Most growers need to rent hives for pollination.
"Ideally, there would be one hive per acre," Owings says. "They'll come in with a pallet of four hives per pallet and they will place those strategically around the orchard."
The grower notifies the beekeeper when it's time to bring the bees in and when it's time to take them away. Getting them out before the grower starts spraying is critical.
"That's where you can get into trouble with bee kills," Owings says.
The grower can't trust a bee to do what he wants. An apple blossom might seem to us like the tastier choice, but a bee? Not so much.
"If you have a tremendous bloom of dandelions they'll be working that on the ground cover and not working your flowers in the orchard," the farm agent says. "So again we recommend they go in and mow frequently or use a herbicide to kill those broadleaf weeds."
The beekeeper will charge growers $50 to $70 a hive, or $2,500 to $3,750 for a 50-acre orchard.
"When you're looking at making a good quality crop that's a pretty good investment," Owings says.

Nature trumps chemical seduction

 

In his job as an adviser to growers and an advocate for the industry, Owings has seen plenty of innovations in agronomy.
A few years ago "we tried a product called Bee Here, a bee attractant that was sprayed during king bloom on a Red Delicious block," he says.
"It turned out there was another Red Delicious block less than a mile way that was in full bloom. Well, we sprayed that block and the bees — we had the hives right there in the orchard, and you could watch them. They just took off and went to that full bloom orchard, regardless of what we sprayed on that orchard that had just the king bloom. The point is they go to the best and largest source — that's where those bees will go."
Owings chuckles at the memory of a great cloud of bees flying away from the manmade seduction spray to the orchard with the big white flowers Mother Nature made.
"It was really not that successful," he says.

Thinning an art and a science

Apple trees require plenty of work once they have set fruit as well.
Growers need to thin the young apples for several reasons.
"The thinning is as much an art as it is a science," Owings says. "But we've got new tools that we're using to help us in this toolbox."
Developed at Cornell, a guide called the carbon balance model uses weather forecast to recommend when farmers should spray chemical thinners and at what strength. Cool sunny days increase the tree's carbohydrate supply, reducing its response to thinners. Cloudy hot periods create a carbohydrate deficit and make the tree more responsive to thinners.
"If you spray today and you have three days of cloudy weather, you'll have a lot more thinning," Owings says.
Through chemical thinning, growers want to eliminate all but the king bloom — the stronger bloom and the one that will produce the best fruit. Thinning is important, too, because too many apples will overload a branch and because an overloaded tree will produce smaller and poorer quality fruit.
On average it takes 40 leaves per apple to produce good quality. The roots and trunk (or leader) are like the gas tank, storing carbohydrates over the winter and releasing them when it's time to leaf out.
"After fruit set, those leaves start feeding the tree and the young fruit," Owings says.
"During differentiation, the tree is deciding whether that bud that's being formed is going to be a vegetative bud or a fruiting bed, and that (vegetative bud) will be set for the next year's crop. So you've got to take care of your trees not just this year but for next year's crop. We recommend fertilizing those trees every year depending on leaf samples as well as soil samples. They use up a lot of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and minor elements in order to grow that leaf and the fruit."
That's why Jerred Nix, an Edneyville apple grower, was picking samples in August and sending them off to N.C. State University for analysis. The analysis will show Nix what fertilizer he needs to add now for next year's crop.

High density planting

A third generation grower, Nix farms with his father, Jeff, at the base of Bearwallow Mountain in Edneyville. Wayne Nix, Jeff's father and Jerred's grandfather, grew apples and owned a packinghouse. The father-and-son team is among a smaller group of Henderson County growers to adopt a science-based growing innovation called a tall spindle. They've got 55 acres of apples in production this year but a lot of labor this summer has been devoted to the crop they will harvest on 45 acres in 2015, 2016 and beyond. The Nixes bought used utility poles from a salvage operation in Charlotte, and they have been busy planting the poles in the ground to hold up wires for a system called a tall spindle trellis.

JerredNixJeffNixJerred and Jeff Nix at their orchard.Developed by a world-renowned expert in tree physiology, Cornell University's Terence Robinson, the tall spindle system requires better (more expensive) dwarfing rootstock trees (topping out at 10-12 feet), training of the tree through aggressive pruning and limb tie-downs and a four-wire trellis system. It's not cheap. Planting a 50-acre orchard in this new high-density layout would cost about $450,000 more than the traditional low-density pattern. But over five years, Robinson projects, the grower will see $1.4 million more in farm-gate revenue, and end up $930,000 to the good.
The orchard produces more apples not just because the grower has more trees per acre. The farmer grows more apples per tree.
"You've set a good crop, you've done your chemical thinning, you've done your fruit count, so you know how much fruit you want to set on that tree," Owings says. "The other real important thing for growing quality fruit is sunlight. You've got to have a minimum of 70 percent full sun in order to get good quality fruit. If you don't have that percentage of sunlight into that tree, you've got shading problems within the tree."
The tall spindle system is designed to maximize sunlight
"That's why we prune those trees and train them so you can get sunlight all the way into the central leader (the trunk), and all of those buds, the spurs (the short branches that hold the apple) and the spur leaves get adequate sunlight," he says.
Now, less than 10 percent of the county's 150 growers are using the tall spindle trellis system. But as the innovators show the way (and cash bigger checks), more new orchards are likely to switch to the higher yield way.
"Over the decades we've gone from, like, 150 trees per acre, up to close to a thousand trees per acre" in some new orchards, Owings says. Resistance to change "is just human nature. We don't like to change. But research has shown, as Terence says, that you're leaving money on the table when you don't take it to the maximum number of trees per acre that you should."

'Labor is our biggest problem'

 

By mid-August, crews had fanned out in Henderson County orchards to begin picking the 2014 crop.

The earliest ripening varieties — the crisp red Gala and the yellow Ginger Golds — had benefited from a run of dry sunny days. By mid-August they were ready for the packinghouse, where sorters would grade them for fresh-pack sale or for process, for products like juice and apple sauce.
Labor is a huge issue for the apple industry.
Henderson County apple growers, produce farmers and the ornamental industry depend 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.
It's a big cost, for starters. But paying for pickers is better than having no pickers at all.
"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."
But even if a miracle happened and Congress reformed immigration and ensured an adequate farm labor supply, growers would still look for ways to reduce labor costs.
That's why the next innovation in the apple industry's future might be to prune and pick from a moving platform.
A county farmer who did a cost-efficiency study found that 40 percent of the labor time in the orchard was burned moving ladders from tree to tree. The new trellised orchards would enable growers to pull a platform on a flatbed up the row while workers pruned or picked on three levels — one on the ground, one midway up and one at the top of the tree.

Eat fresh apples

 

Change comes in the apple industry in many forms. There are new methods, better chemicals, new strategies for using safer organic chemicals. There are tall spindle trellises and new markets. The emphasis on locally sourced fresh fruit and NixAppleCloseuphealthy eating is helping to expand the market for fresh apples and sliced apple packs.
Reaching back for generations, the apple industry in Henderson County is a tradition-bound way of life. Yet science is making a better apple and innovation is making the business of apples more profitable.
At the North Carolina Apple Festival this weekend, people will come from all over to honor the sweet crunchy portable fruit. Good for cider and juice, cobbler and sauce, backpacks and pies, the apple lives on. Don't leave town without one.