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A few miles from Main Street, pick an apple from a tree

Dave Butler runs Skytop Orchard, a U-pick orchard in Zirconia that 60 acres of apple, pear and peach trees. Dave Butler runs Skytop Orchard, a U-pick orchard in Zirconia that 60 acres of apple, pear and peach trees.

Apple Festival visitors can always find plenty of fresh apples up and down Main Street. But for see where they grow and pick them by hand, visitors might want to hop in the car and head to a U-pick orchard.


The Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association lists seven U-pick orchards in Henderson County, although some have suspended customer-pick operations this year because of the spring freeze that severely cut yields. And there are many more orchards that are open to the public, offering apples and other fruits and vegetables.
It's a good idea to pick up a copy of the direct marketing information sheet at the Visitors Center and call the orchard to make sure they have apples to pick, or go to NCapples.com for current offers.
High atop Pinnacle Mountain, Dave Butler is inviting apple pickers to come on up. A freeze last April 13-14 that decimated many orchards in Henderson County spared Butler's Skytop orchard. The orchard's 2,850-foot elevation had something to do with it, Butler says, although he knows of an orchard in Boone at more than 3,200 feet that suffered damage.
"Sometimes you just get lucky," he said. "I tell people we're kind of near the Isothermal belt. We can have some air mixing through Saluda and Tryon and some old-timers say that is part of the deal" that accounts for tempering the cold.
Although a farmer takes no pleasure in a fellow farmer's bad luck, Butler is glad to have a full crop.
Skytop is one of the few orchards in Henderson County that sells nearly all its crop at retail. When his dad planted the orchard in 1967, it produced apples that the family sold to grocery stores and the baby food and juice plants that operated here then. Butler credits his wife, Lindsey, with the idea for converting to a U-pick orchard. Skytop has grown ever since.
Under the big shed where the Butlers sell bagged apples in addition to caramel apples and apple cider doughnuts, Judson Rogers was telling a family where each variety was located. Butler grows 28 varieties. Each ripens at a slightly different time so fresh apples are coming in from August through October. Rules for picking are simple. Keep the fruit you pick, even if it falls on the ground. Don't break branches. Have fun.
Skytop farm is 100 acres, about 60 in apple, pear and peach trees. Asian pears and yellow free-stone peaches make up a fraction of the total acreage in fruit; the apple is the star.
"We'll probably make some apple sauce or apple butter," said Brian Fomby, a young dad from Lexington, S.C., who drove to Skytop with his wife, Natalie, and preschool boys Charlie and Henry. He was pulling a wagon loaded with Gala, Honeycrisp, Cortland and McIntosh apples. "We came here a few years ago and loved it and wanted to come back."

 

Educatiing kids
Walking through a row of tall McIntosh trees, Butler stopped to pick an apple that had split, bloated by too much rain. Customer turnout and sales have been good so far this year, he said, but a farmer never counts his apple cash before the season ends.
"If we were to get three rainy weekends, that's hard on us," he said.
Aside from the attraction of picking apples on a mountaintop with a breathtaking view, Skytop also has a pen of sheep and peacocks and offers hayrides on the half hour. Butler, like other apple growers who open their farms to the public, considers education a part of their charge. A trip to the orchard might be the only time a city kid from Atlanta or Charlotte sees a farm.
"We teach about the orchard and bees, try to talk about the length of the days, what makes the leaves turn," he said. "We kind of make it age appropriate. We do all the way from three years old to when Bob Jones University comes here with their alumni groups. The Clemson faculty comes for an outing. We've got several churches and large tour buses that will come here and then go to Biltmore house."
Mixing apples with families seems to produce tradition.
"We have a beautiful mountaintop location; it kind of draws people, like this family here," Butler says, pointing to a young mom with two little children. "She'll probably come off and on until these kids go to college. We've been doing it long enough now that those kids are bringing their children back, saying I came here as a child and here's my child."

'Family tradition'
Fifteen miles away, on the other side of the county, Don Justus mans a cash register under another big shed. He too sells apples and runs a U-pick operation. Like Skytop, Justus Orchards offers a big variety of apples and in the high season adds other attractions for kids and their parents. On weekends Justus has games, tractor rides and barbecue.
"We feel very fortunate to have apples this year because a lot of our friends and neighbors don't," said Justus, a fourth-generation grower. "We were 2 to 3 degrees warmer and we had just enough air movement to have a salvageable crop."
Salvageable is a decent outcome given the amount of damage countywide from the April freeze and June hailstorms. Farm agent Marvin Owings, in a "Dear grower" message in the Apple Production Newsletter, wrote that "this year's crop is shaping up to be the most disappointing apple season since 1955."
The cold zapped the Honeycrisp and Jonagold trees in the Justus orchard. "We do have a good supply of 16 other varieties," he said. "So far so good. The foot traffic is picking up. It always picks up close to Labor Day. We have become a family tradition. In some families we're on the third or fourth generation."
Admiring the bushels of apples at the stands on Main Street is part of the festival fun, for sure, but to truly appreciate Henderson County's apple-growing tradition you can't beat a walk through an old orchard and a day of picking.

For more information pick up a guide to apple farms at the Visitors Center, 201 S. Main St., or visit NCapples.com.