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As growers welcome disaster relief, they hope for a better season

Days after the start of spring, apple growers are eyeing a new farm year with the hope that 2021 fades into the rear-view mirror as a bad movie without a sequel.

“We’re certainly moving into a very risky part of the season,” said Terry Kelley, the director of Henderson County’s Agriculture Extension Service. “We’re just hoping that we don’t get a repeat of last year. We lost about 70 percent of the crop last year and that’s just not something we can tolerate very many times.”
Just over a year ago, on April 2 and 3, orchards saw low temperatures ranging from 21½ to 26 degrees for two nights running, causing widespread blossom mortality and decimating the crop before it started.
Growers who saw most of their farm income erased got some good news last week, however, when the Legislature enacted a new agriculture relief bill that added the freeze-ruined apple harvest to a disaster relief bill that had been focused on Tropical Storm Fred damage only.
The response to an apple crop loss estimated at around $20 million is expected to make around $12 million available for Henderson County apple growers, said Jerred Nix, a grower from the Bearwallow community. Nix, who is active in the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association and the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said he had been involved in the process as state Rep. Tim Moffitt and state Sen. Chuck Edwards worked with N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to add the freeze-damage relief to the bill. Besides covering apple losses, the Agricultural Crop Loss Program also covers berries and grapes.
“In the past, we have seen too many state dollars go to help eastern farmers while ours in the west were ignored,” Edwards said in a news release. “I’m pleased that with the help of Rep. Moffitt, we’ve made sure our western counties’ voices are being heard and their needs are prioritized.”
“Henderson County’s family farms are central to both our identity and our economy,” Moffitt added. “I want to thank our agriculture commissioner, Steve Troxler, for working with us to get this done. North Carolina’s farmers should know that we will always have their back.”

Cold snap poses first threat of 2021

Although a cold snap March 12-13 this year plunged temperatures into the teens in many orchards, growers’ early assessment is that damage is limited. Nix said the buds were so tiny at the time that growers can’t assess the damage yet.
“In all of it I don’t know how there ain’t any damage to get that cold but it’s just too early to tell,” he said.
A third generation grower, Nix and his father, Jeff, fill a sizable contract with Food Lion every year for premium apples. Like other Henderson County growers that supply supermarket chains, the Nixes had to buy from their neighbors.
“We bought a lot of apples but we bought every one of them from here,” he said. “Everything we bought come from Edneyville or Dana. There was no problem selling last year at all.”
The short crop did boost the price of fresh apples and process apples some but not enough to make up for the poor harvest.
“There was a little bit more from the grocery store but not a lot, and it was based more on cardboard cost and labor than fruit,” Nix said.

Is EverCrisp the new star?

Trey Enloe, another young farmer who grows about 100 acres of apples, was cautiously optimistic that the deep freeze did limited damage.
“We might’ve got a little bit on some stuff that’s early but overall I think it’s going to be between a nothing to a little bit of thinning,” I’m not worried too much about it.”
Enloe hopes the weather is kinder this year.
“We were somewhere around 80 to 85 percent loss,” he said. While the more durable Romes survived in many orchards, “some stuff, like cameos, pink ladies, was not around last year. Obviously supply and demand — you get less supply you’re going to get a little price increase. Even at the processing level, prices were better but with the short crop the volume wasn’t there.”
Although they don’t have a roadside stand, Enloe and his wife do some direct selling at the Hendersonville farmers market while also selling fresh apples in bulk to farm stands and grocery chains. About 30-40 percent of the crop goes to apples for processing. “We either press our own” or sell to out-of-state buyers for juice and apple sauce.
The Gerber plant in Asheville, which opened in 1959, once produced 2 million jars of baby food a day from locally grown apples, sweet potatoes, peas and other crops. The plant closed in 1998, a loss that growers still lament.
“One of the problems being down here, not having a big local processor, you’re kind of at the mercy of somebody a couple of states away,” Enloe said.
One thing consumers can watch for this year is new varieties of apples that respond to the current consumer taste for a tart, crunchy apple.
“There’s a lot of interesting varieties coming out that people have been planting over the past couple years,” Enloe said. “I think you’ll start seeing more of those show up now that they’ve had a couple years for the trees to develop.”
Among the promising newcomers are Evercrisp and new varieties of the popular honey crisp and pink lady.
“That EverCrisp, I’m excited about that one,” he said. “That’s a cross between a fuji and a honey crisp.” Developed by the Midwest Apple Improvement Association in Ohio, the EverCrisp is purplish and crunchy.
Enloe has about four acres of the new variety, out of 100 acres he’ll harvest this year. Like a lot of large farmers, Enloe’s Lewis Creek Farm is steadily adding trellised rows, a practice that makes for more efficient pruning and harvesting and can double or triple the yield per acre.
“We try to convert about 3 to 5 acres a year” from conventional orchard to trellis, he said. “Of course, you’ve got significantly more cost developing those. It’s not magic.”

‘We’re not out of the woods’

Kelley, the extension director who has a Ph.D. in plant and soil science, said he’s not heard of any major damage yet from the March 12-13 freeze.
“I don’t think we’re hurting too bad,” he said. “Honestly we won’t know until everything starts to emerge what damage there was if any. Most everything was still either at silver tip or still dormant. We thought some of the early peaches may get bit pretty bad because they were already having some blooms out there but from what I’ve talked to people, they don’t seem to have gotten hurt too bad.”
Thanks to “a more normal winter” after Christmas, the apple country achieved the threshold of cold temperatures — or chill hours — needed to ensure that buds flower in a timely way.
“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “Easter’s late this year (April 17). We can always count on a cold snap sometime around Easter. Things are really starting to pop right now. I know we’ve got some into green tip and half-inch green right now and moving along pretty quickly.”
The new varieties Enloe and other growers are testing should be good for the county’s $30 million a year apple industry, Kelley said.
“Some of these newer apples are the kind that the public likes — slightly sweet, crisp apples,” he said. “With some of the newer varieties, they are probably replacing some of the older stuff that we’ve got, some of the Red Delicious and things like that that have kind of gone out of popularity. They planted these things four or five years ago and it’s always good to see some revenue from these varieties you put in.”
This time of year tends to produce a mix of hope and caution as the days grow longer and warmer.
“Every year’s different,” Nix says, before ticking off a range of threats fickle nature can deliver: “Hail or frost, disease or if we get a hundred inches of rain or we turn off into a drought.”
Sunny days in early spring tend to lull most of us into confidence that winter is behind us.
“I’m looking at clear skies and 67 degrees right now,” said Kelley as he drove on Monday. “It feels like spring but my guess is that we’ve still got some cold nights ahead of us. This time of year is always a little bit sleepless for farmers. We just hope they have a good year so they can continue to farm and we can continue to have a secure food supply that comes locally.”