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Growers making the best of freeze-damaged crop

Jack Frost wore out his welcome last spring, delivering a steady stream of overnight freezes that left the apple country with a short crop and in some cases less than supermarket quality fresh apples.

“We’ve had better years but our growers always seem to make do with what the good Lord gives ’em and that’s case this year,” said Terry Kelley, director of the county’s Cooperative Extension Service. “We took some significant hits in March and April. Two years ago it all kind came in two different events and hit us pretty hard.” This year, “we had 17 events below 32 from the first of March over into April. Each time it just hurt us a little more.”
Kelley this week was not yet able to pinpoint the extent of the loss but said it’s widespread in location and across apple varieties.
“It depends on where you’re at,” he said. “Some may have a 50 percent crop, some may have only 30 percent. It’s going to be in those ranges. … A lot of what we have goes to retail market, particularly in a year like this. We’re going to have a regular harvest season. It’s just not going to be quite as big as it was last year.”
After May freezes wiped out around 80 percent of the crop in 2021, Henderson
County growers rebounded in a big way last year, harvesting a bumper crop. Problem is, so did growers in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, producing a glut of apples, especially juice apples. Still, apple stands and U-pick orchards are opening now and the 14 growers who have booths at this weekend’s Apple Festival expect to have plenty of product.

Damage ‘was just all over the place’

Growers have been mystified this year at the spottiness of the cold-weather damage.
“It was very variable. It was kind of odd the way it was,” Kelley said, showing no pattern based on geography, elevation or variety. Although “Fujis were hit hard,” freeze damage was seemingly random. “Even on individual farms, you can see rows that were just completely wiped out and you can see rows that have almost a full crop. It was just all over the place.”

Jerred Nix, who grows apples in the Bearwallow community and on Sugarloaf Mountain, said he’s running wide open now, busy “pickin’, packin’, a little bit of everything.”
The crop is just “all right,” he said. “It ain’t the best but it’s what we got.”
Like other growers, he sees the crop damage on two levels — loss of apples altogether or fresh apples with freeze rings and other signatures of cold damage that demote them to a rock-bottom process apple price.
“What’s there is not that good,” he said. “We’re trying to get what we can.”
He and his dad, Jeff, have kept a contract they have with the state to supply fresh apples for school lunches. They’ve already shipped one load of whole apples and a truck of sliced apples.
“The mountain (orchard) up on Sugarloaf is in good shape,” he said. “Dana is in bad shape but I don’t have an orchard there — it’s what I hear — and then Edneyville is maybe 50 percent (of a full crop), maybe 60. But you’ve got 30 to 40 percent good apples out of that 60 percent, so in the grand scheme of things
you’re looking at 30 percent good apples.”
That and the oversupply left over from last year make for a challenging season.
“All of us had a bumper crop,” he said. “It kind of just messed everything up — everybody having a bumper crop at one time.”

A natural frost barrier

Not too far from Sugarloaf Mountain, Creasman Farms on Union Hill Road signified the randomness of the freeze damage.
“It’s good,” Colby Creasman Buchanan said of her family’s crop on 30 acres. “We definitely had a spring freeze but luckily the way our orchard sits on the Union Hill ridge we have a little bit of natural frost protection just because of the lay of the land. We have a pretty decent crop. We still are going to be open for a U-pick season and we’ll be at the Apple Festival.”
Unlike the county’s biggest commercial growers, the Creasmans don’t have to worry so much about downward pressure on prices.
“We’re all retail,” she said. “We don’t do any wholesale. We don’t necessarily follow the market. We do this to earn a living. We have to factor in our cost, where everything is going up. I know a lot of the wholesale community is really struggling with that right now. It’s hard. Because of the freeze, not everybody has first-quality apples.”
Despite the heartburn growers are feeling, Kelley, of the extension service, says buyers can be confident of the quantity or quality when they’re cruising Main Street this weekend or visiting roadside stands throughout the fall.
“If the weather holds up and we get the usual crop we’re going to have apples to purchase,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna run out. It’s going to be a good Apple Festival I’m sure.
“We’ve got two more months (to pick) so we’re looking for a good, extended harvest,” he added. “Every season’s a little different. Our growers have been doing this for a hundred years. They’ve pretty much learned to take what they’re handed and make the best of it. It shows the resilience of apple farmers and farmers in general.”