Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Although crop is short, 'we will have apples'

Sky Top Orchard and other pick-you-own farms will be open this year and will have apples, though picking days could be limited. Sky Top Orchard and other pick-you-own farms will be open this year and will have apples, though picking days could be limited.

As roadside stands and U-pick orchards open for the season, apple growers are lamenting a crop decimated by two April frosts.

“We’ve got apples. We’re not going to have as many as we normally do,” said Terry Kelley, the director of the N.C. Agriculture Extension Service. “I’d say there’s going to be probably a little less pick your own but there will be plenty of bagged apples.”
Back-to-back freezes April 2-3 and April 21-22 whacked the crop hard, especially in lower elevation orchards.
“A lot of it has to do with the stage of bloom they were in when the freezes came,” Kelley said. The first freeze brought “just a really low temperature freeze, so unless things were really tight clustered at that time they weren’t protected. Then when we got out to that later part of the month, some trees began to set maybe a few fruit and they’re a little bit more vulnerable even if the temperature is not as low. It was two nights of frost way up in the trees and it took its toll.”
The most vulnerable apples are not necessarily the varieties that are picked the earliest because apples mature at different rates. Pink ladies, for instance, one of the later maturing apples, were among the hardest hit.
Growers in the apple country have been projecting a harvest of around 30 percent of usual.
“I would say that’s pretty accurate,” Kelley said. “We’re expecting a pretty significant reduction from what our normal yields are. We don’t want to discourage people because we’re going to have apples. We want people to know that there’s apples out there. Most of our roadside stands are going to be open and have apples for sale.”
Although the short crop is likely to lift prices some “there’s a point where you can’t just have an infinitely high price,” Kelley said. “But when there is a shortage the market will stand a little increase in prices.”
Although many large growers have crop insurance, a claim check is not much more than a shor-term lifeline.
“It never makes up for having a good crop,” Kelley said. “The biggest thing you rely on that for is to tide you over to keep you in business.”

Berries fare better

Although it was a mixed bag, berries and grapes fared better than apples, said Karen Blaedow, small fruit and vegetable specialist with the Extension Service.

Blueberries suffered a 50 percent loss, she estimated, while blackberries recovered to produce a secondary crop that’s ripening now. “What happened for these guys is they’re about three weeks behind but overall their crop has been good for blackberries,” she said. “Grapes were not affected.” Strawberries survived the frost because large growers are able to protect the young fruit with row covers. Then the crop benefited from a dry and sunny May that ripened the berries early. “They were the only ones that had them so they had lines of people,” Blaedow said. “They were super pleased. It was a great strawberry year.”

U-pick orchards to open

Sky Top Orchard on Pinnacle Mountain opened last week, Justus Orchard in Fruitland opens Saturday and Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchards in Edneyville opens for U-pick on Aug. 20. Growers will have pick-your-own options and pre-picked apples, even if they have to buy from other farms. (For a list of all the U-pick orchards visit the Blue Ridge Apple Growers website.)
“We opened last Friday,” said Lindsey Butler, who owns Sky Top with her husband, Dave. “We have a light crop like everyone else in the county but we’re still going to have pick your own and we’re going to be open every day. Different varieties we have different amounts. It won’t be an everyday thing (for U-pick) but we will be making our pies and donuts every day.”
Mike Stepp at the family-run Hillcrest Orchards said the damage is clear now.
“It’s extensive,” he said. “I’m sure there are more apples than there was to begin with. We’ve got a few varieties, maybe some young trees, have got pretty much a full crop but most of our old trees do not have a crop, a few have maybe 50 percent of a crop, some near zero percent. It’s according to the variety. And all these microclimates we have up and town these hills makes a huge difference. I’ve been saying probably we’ve got 20 percent of a crop.”
The family plans to open Hillcrest’s U-pick season on Aug. 20 with early fujis and will open its retail barn with picked apples and other farm products this weekend.
“The good thing about our situation — we’ve got great customers,” he said. “God has blessed us in that. They don’t mind looking for apples. They will go out and they will search. … We may have to limit some days. Last year, we had the hail so we had a limited number of apples that were sellable and we kind of got through with that.”
When Hillcrest opens its season, it will roll out its other traditions, including apple cider, apple cider donuts, jellies and jams, an apple cannon and wagon tours.
Jerred Nix has lower orchards in the Bearwallow community and higher ones on Sugarloaf Mountain.
“The only spot I’ve got apples is on the mountain. Nothing down here” on Bearwallow Road, he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason why but the mountain this year, everybody’s got a full crop.”
Jerred and his father, Jeff, will still be able to fill a large supermarket contract. “I’ve got other apples bought” from other growers, he said. “We’ll be running the packinghouse.”
It’s the rare year when growers face no challenge. A Mother’s Day freeze and hailstorms reduced the harvest last year and too much rain damaged some trees in 2018 and 2019. Although yields were down, roadside stands and U-pick orchards had one of their best years in 2020.
“We had a big turnout,” said Kelley, the extension director. “It was in the middle of Covid and people took that opportunity to get out the house and come to the mountains and get out in the orchards so we had a big tourist turnout. We may not have apples as late in the season as we normally do but we’ll have apples.”