Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Freezes, hail and a pandemic pile up for apple growers

Let us count the ways that 2020 has heaped a deluge of challenges upon the apple country:


• February acted like April, coaxing the crop into early blossom — always an ominous start.
• Sure enough, freezes in April and on Mother’s Day weekend — Mother’s Day! — killed or damaged buds or baby apples.
• Although hailstorms are a regular threat to the apple crop, this year’s hailstorms have been more widespread, beating up nearly ripe fruit across the apple country from Bearwallow Mountain to Dana.
• Going north, competing apple states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan — also suffered crop damage — either from freezes or hail. Visible damage, like cuts or frost scars, demotes would-be fresh apples — which draw a good price — to process apples — used for juice, apple sauce, etc. The difference between fresh apple price and the juice apple price is huge — like the price of a brand-name dress versus a thrift shop dress.
• Weeks of hot, wet weather have made the orchards an inviting target for disease, including some new ones that the industry has not yet developed a fungicide for.
• The Covid-19 threat forced farmers to frantically search for personal protective equipment for pickers, packers and customers and intensify sanitation protocols while they worried that pandemic restrictions would reduce visits to their stands.

“It really ain’t been a good year for growing apples — being all the rain, the hail, the heat, Covid. We’ve had it all thrown at us,” said Jerred Nix, who grows apples with his dad, Jeff, in the Bearwallow community and elsewhere in Edneyville. “I got a lot of hail here at my house (at the base of Bearwallow), a touch here (in a nearby orchard) and a touch on the mountain. It’s been a crazy year.”
Between early freeze damage and later hail damage, the county has tons of juice apples. The oversupply has caused the price of process apples to plunge and it’s expected to keep dropping.
“We’re hearing it’s the same way up north,” Nix said. “The East Coast is just loaded with juice apples this year. Good apples are bringing very good money. We have no clue (what will happen to the price). Here the whole county is sitting with a bunch of juice apples and we don’t know what we’re going to do with them.”
The rain hasn’t helped, either.
Nix recorded 10 inches of rain over a seven-day stretch in one orchard and 15 inches two miles away in a second field.
“I’m not going to say it’s as bad as 2018 but with some of these new diseases we’ve had that thrive on hot, wet weather, and that’s what we’ve had this summer, it’s really hurt us on some of these diseases,” he said.
Crop insurance helps those growers that buy it to some degree. And Nix said he’s getting a boost from the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a USDA initiative President Trump highlighted during a visit to Flavor 1st Growers & Packers in Mills River last week. The Nixes are shipping apples to Food Box packers in Durham and Goldsboro and to two cities in Florida.

‘We’ve had better conditions’

Henderson County Agriculture Extension Director Terry Kelley said buyers can still find plenty of fresh apples this weekend, though growers have overcome hurdles to pick them.
“We’ve certainly had better conditions (in the past) than we’ve had this year,” he said. “As is always the case, we’re going to have a crop. Yieldwise, I think folks in general, we’ve got plenty of apples. I think on the quality side it’s been a little bit challenging. I’ve seen some pretty good looking apples but I’m sure some are going to get graded out (for processing) because of the freeze early in the year and the torrential rains we continue to have.”
“We did have some significant hailstorms. That’s something we have every year to some degree. … Some people probably would say, ‘What hail?’ and some would have some horror stories out there. We had a freeze on Mother’s Day weekend and I think probably as the season wore on we realized more the damage it caused. We did have some quality issues because of that late freeze. We had that February that was more like April and the colder weather seemed to be on the tail end of spring.”
Through June, rainfall was about average “but since then, daily rains, it’s humid out there,” he said. “We’re just in a percent climate right now for disease — hot, humid conditions and daily rain.”
Growers are focusing their efforts on drawing a crowd on a weekend when many people are accustomed to buying apples.
“It’s basically getting people to come out to the orchards,” Kelley said. “Most of these people that you usually see on Main Street have a retail location, whether it’s Chimney Rock Road or in some other part of the county. … Folks are not going to be all in one place like they usually are but we’ve still got apples and you won’t have to carry them as far. We do have a pretty good reputation in this area for good quality North Carolina apples and I think they’ll still come for that.”

‘We were blessed’ to avoid hail

At Justus Orchard in Fruitland, Don and Margo Justus were busy ringing up sales of fresh apples, fresh produce, apple pies and canned goods and sending customers out to pick on their own. As soon as they recognized that covid-19 would be here through the harvest, Don and Margo adjusted their retail operation. Instead of reusable baskets that would have needed to be sanitized, they bought new cardboard boxes that pickers take home.
It’s been a good year, Margo said. “We were blessed. We know a lot of farmers had hail damage.”
Like a handful of other U-pick operations in the county, the Justuses have a wide variety of goods, including apple cider donuts, apple fritters, apple slices with caramel “and famous home-made fried apple pies,” Margo said. “My brother hand makes every one of those. Some people buy frozen pie crusts and cook them.”
The orchard also has the Good to the Bone barbecue truck on site on weekends. The 60-acre orchard makes it easy to social distance. Kelley, the extension director, describes that as a draw.
“I think people want to get out,” Kelley said. “They’ve been penned in all these months trying to stem the tide of this virus. They’re looking for ways to get out safely in fresh air and get some good apples.”