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Growers survive another year of 'playing poker'

Jeff and Jerred Nix pose with the last of their 2014 apple crop. Jeff and Jerred Nix pose with the last of their 2014 apple crop.

EDNEYVILLE — On a frigid morning in mid-April, Jerred Nix walked through an orchard examining tiny apples for freeze damage. The temperature had dropped to 24 degrees the night before, danger zone for the young crop.

Henderson County apple farmers always fear a hard freeze in the spring. Freezes in 2012 and 2007 wiped out most of the crop. On that day in April, Nix was relieved to see that the damage appeared to be comparatively light. There would be a crop. But as it turned out, five and a half months later, Jerred Nix and his father, Jeff, had a clearer idea of the cold's destructive power.
"Crazy," was the way Jerred Nix described this year's yield.
"Goldens was 150 bins more than last year," he said. "Grannys (Granny Smith apples) was off 50 bins and Romes was off 150 bins."
In other words, some varieties improved over last year's yield; others suffered.
"The Romes and the Grannys was where it was 24 degrees that morning," Nix said. "Right there where we got the picture (for the first Tree-to-Table installment) and we had the thermometer and it was 24 degrees. A little bit up the hill, it was a little bit warmer. You figure 150 bins of Romes (less) compared to last year, you're looking at 4,000 bushels difference."
The Nixes caught a break on Mutsus, a popular fresh apple. They picked 50 bins — about 1,000 bushels — more than in 2013.
"Mutsus were very hard to find around here," Jerred said. "Cold weather just about killed everybody else's. We were fortunate enough to have some and a few other people had some."

* * * *

On Halloween, the Nixes and their picking crew worked on an old machine in a packing house built by Jerred's grandfather, Wayne Nix, packing the last of the apples of the 2013 crop. It had been an up-and-down season, as many years are, but in the end the farmers avoided disaster and received a decent price for their apples. They didn't get rich but they didn't go broke either.
"The fresh apple price has done well," Jerred said. "Nothing like we've had the last two years but it was a good year."
Outside, the light faded and the cold air covered the slopes of the apple country. Any grower who had not finished the harvest was in trouble. That night, a rare Nov. 1 snow would dump up to six inches of wet snow on the ground, leaving a cloak of white on the apples that pickers had skipped.
Having sold the last of this year's crop and facing his crew's departure for the next harvest, Nix knew it was "go time" to pack the apples.
"We finished picking last week and they finished with some other guys that have been helping us. Part of them are leaving Sunday and the rest of 'em's leaving next week. Being these are all sold, I wanted to get 'em all packed real quick. So all I've got to do is load 'em and get 'em to market instead of me and Dad and Mark and Charlie trying to pack all these," he said, referring to fulltime farmworkers Mark Nix, a cousin, and Charlie Smith, a longtime employee.
"Five of them are going to stay here," he said of some of the farm crew he employed this year. "They're going to Sparta to start cutting Christmas trees. Part of the older ones are going south where it's warm."

* * * *

Nix, 26, planned to do what a lot of farmers like to do after the season — deer hunt. But when a hunting trip to Georgia fell through, he ended up working in the family's other business, grading. Now, he said, he plans to get in some hunting before the first of the year.
This winter the Nixes will finish stringing wire for a trellis system they're installing for a higher density orchard on Bearwallow Road. In 2015, they plan to harvest a crop from the three- and four-year-old trees for the first time. It's part of an innovation recommended by an apple crop researcher who says apple farmers can improve yield and lower labor costs by aggressively pruning young trees, growing them out fast and then reaping a bigger harvest of higher quality fruit. The Nixes are among a handful of growers in Henderson County who have adopted the so-called tall-spindle system.
"Next year we're going to pick them," Jerred said, "Good Lord willing and if the frost and hail and freeze doesn't hit us next spring.
"It's like an old man told me one time. Farming is like playing poker. You never know what hand you're going to be dealt."
It doesn't stop Jerred Nix from coming back to the table. When he looked at the tiny apples last spring, some already killed by the April freeze, others fine, he had no way of knowing what the season would bring. Standing in the packinghouse, the Nixes could look upon 36 bins of Romes, Mutsus, Goldens and Staymans — the last fruit of their labor. By sunup the next day, snow would cover the orchards in the apple valley — an early reminder of winter dormancy. There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. In the apple country, a time of rest had come.