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Apple harvest adjusts to changing demand

EDNEYVILLE — Climb 18-foot ladder. Pick 50 pounds of apples. Climb down ladder. Dump apples in bin. Move ladder. Repeat.



It's harvest time in Henderson County.
In orchards across the apple country, pickers stand on the ground and climb to the tops of trees, arms rotating like windmills as they pick the ripe fruit. Tractors use forks to spear the 1,000-pound boxes and park them in a staging area, under the shape of a tree, to prevent sunburn. Then a tractor driver loads the boxes on flatbeds for destinations near and far — a packinghouse in Dana, a processor in Michigan, a farmers market in Atlanta.
"Yesterday was just crazy," grower Jerred Nix was saying on an overcast and pleasantly cool Friday morning in late September. "Yesterday we were picking for us, picking for Alan (Henderson), picking for another man that was taking apples to the Apple Festival at Lincolnton. We started picking for this man (from Georgia), picking for a man at the Asheville market."
For those that lost count, that's five different orders of many different varieties — and different sizes within varieties. A month earlier, a reporter had asked Nix whether he knew where he would sell his apple crop this year. He didn't. The harvest all comes together in a flurry of orders based on networking among the growers and packinghouses and a sudden visit from out-of-town buyers who don't bother to look at the fruit until it's ripe. Then, boom, everything is running wide open.
"This year Alan's really wanting small Red Delicious," Nix says. "That's what he wants — for schools. Dad's generation was taught to grow a great big apple, because that's what sells."
"Nowadays," he adds, picking a smaller Red Delicious apple from the bin, "this is what sells. They want a smaller apple. When you take an apple to school — which is one of the bigger markets now — you don't want to give a kid one of these great ol' big ones, because they're going to eat three or four bites and throw it away. They want a small apple, so they'll eat the whole apple and not throw any away."
The overall business plan is not that simple, though.
Dad's generation is still right when it comes to fresh apples at retail.
"This right here," he says, still exhibiting the smaller red apple, "if you take this to the market you're p---in' in the wind."
Because of shade, weather and other growing factors, Nix can tailor the picking to the customer. He found a block of trees with smaller apples for Henderson's school order. In another block he had pickers fill boxes with classic big red apples — ironically the image of an apple on the teacher's desk — that he will store in a cooler at the small packing house his granddad, Wayne Nix, built.

50-pound pick sack

Most days now, a crew of 10 gathers in the orchard at 7 in the morning.
Based on the order he needs to fill, Nix and a crew leader will make assignments for the day's haul. Each picker fills his own bin (or box, farmers use the words interchangeably). The bins hold 20-bushels, which makes for 20 trips up and down the tree. For a very fast picker who can fill 15 bins that's 300 pick sacks, and that many climbs up the ladder. It's also $225 a day before taxes, at the Nix farm rate of $15 a box.
Every year Nix visits Dana Elementary School to talk to the youngsters about apple farming.
"You know a pick sack weighs 45 pounds, 50 pounds — about what one of y'all weighs," he tells them. "Just imagine putting one of y'all on the other one's shoulder and climbing an 18-foot ladder — all day, five, six days a week."
Nix's rate is on par with the going rate. Farmers sometimes pay less per box for process apples because it's faster to pick process apples — picking fruit that's going to be apple sauce is less selective than picking a fresh apple in a beauty contest.
"Mine is $15 a box and they get the taxes taken out of it just like mine and your paycheck — no difference," he says. "If you were working for me there'd be just as much taxes taken out on you as there are them."

Quality control

Charlie Smith has been working for the Nix family for 27 years. Born in Jamaica, Smith works year-round on the farm, doing whatever work is needed during the season and through the winter. No one would guess that he's 72. He picks from the ground and from the ladder, hauling the 50-pound pick sack like a worker a third his age. His four children did not go into farming. One granddaughter is a nurse and another is a lawyer in Florida.
A sticker with a tear-off tab goes on each box, identifying the variety of apple, orchard location, the date and the picker. When the box is full the picker gets the tab. At the end of the day he turns in the tab, which is used to calculate his pay. The paper trail back to the worker helps with quality control.
"If somebody's bruising, it's numbered and we can go back and tell the picker, 'Hey, you're bruising. Slow down and watch what you're doing.'"
Records are important. The lease payment for an orchard he farms on Old Clear Creek Road is based on how many boxes he harvests.
The price of apples so far this year is OK.
"Fresh is all right," Nix says. "The processing — some's dirt cheap, some companies are all right." Although he does not pick process apples, he said he's heard the price has dropped by 50 percent — from 13 cents a pound to 6½ cents. "That's break even," he says.
Then he went back to loading the flatbed trailer. It holds 48 boxes. Trailers that head out of Edneyville and onto I-26 for other markets are carrying about 50,000 pounds of apples.