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Even if he doesn’t move as fast as he once did, Don Justus remains at the front of the pack in Henderson County apple farming.
One of a handful of growers to pioneer a large U-Pick operation, Justus operates the family-owned orchard on Garren Road in Fruitland. Diagnosed with ALS in 2012, he continues to work, using his upper body strength to pull himself on to a tractor seat and to direct an operation that’s a model of direct-marketing and crop diversity.
The Blue Ridge Apple Growers last week honored Justus as its grower of the year not only for his strength and perseverance today but for his innovations over the years. Besides 19 varieties of apples, Justus and his family grow pumpkins and blackberries, sell their famous fried apple pies and apple cider donuts, cider slushies, caramel apples, apple bread, jams, jellies and preserves.
“I grew up on the farm,” Justus said as his fellow growers walked up to shake his hand and his family gathered around. “I’m the third generation. These guys (his sons) will be the fourth generation and he’s representing the fifth generation” pointing to his 18-month-old grandson Mason.
Justus is among the progressive farmers in the county who have put in trellis systems that increase production and make pruning and picking easier. Although a late frost last spring hurt the 2016 crop, the orchard’s Mutsus, a midseason variety, survived.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Justus said. “We’ve been selling pick-your-own for so long that we’ve got the second and third generation coming back (to pick).”
His mother, Glenda, discovered U-Pick marketing by accident when she opened a travel trailer park across the road from the family orchard. Tourists asked if they could come over and pick apples.
“They’d never heard of anybody wanting to pay to pick apples,” he said.
Chris Justus, a meteorologist with WYFF-Ch. 4 in Greenville, S.C., and Cory Justus, a Henderson County sheriff’s deputy, help on the farm when they’re not on duty in their day jobs. Each is married with a toddler son, giving Don and his wife, Margo, confidence that the family farm will continue.
While Chris, a 2005 graduate of North Henderson High School, and Cory, NHHS ’07, help on the farm, Don still comes up with the dreams and ideas, Margo says.
“They can help with the brawn,” she says. “He’s still the brains.”