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Too hot, too cold then too wet, apple crop survives challenges

Colby Buchanan sells apples at the Creasman Farms stand at the North Carolina Apple Festival. Colby Buchanan sells apples at the Creasman Farms stand at the North Carolina Apple Festival.

EDNEYVILLE — Having endured a series of threats to the crop this season, apple growers are ramping up for the peak harvest over the coming weeks.

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“We started picking full swing yesterday,” said Jerred Nix, who grows apples on Bearwallow Mountain.
In a hailstorm on Aug. 8 “I got hit in every orchard I’ve got” on and around Bearwallow Mountain, he said. Others nearby were spared.
“Just like at my house, you can go a quarter mile or half a mile to the right and there isn’t none,” he said. “That orchard I got up on the mountain is so long it only got half the orchard. It’s just very sporadic where the storms were.”
He’ll find out the extent of the damage when the freshly picked apples reach the packing house.
“It’s hard to judge ’em in a box,” Nix said. “Until they run through the machine and the graders throw out the bad ones it’s going to be hard to say how many. I predict it’s going to be about 35 percent.”

Too cold for bees

Terry Kelly, the director of the county Cooperative Extension Service, ticked off a litany of threats to the apple crop, from the weather to extra spraying costs.
“We’ve had our challenges this year,” Kelly said this week. “We had a really hot February and we started to get really nervous about the blooms getting out but then it turned cold.”
The cold weather came in time to halt the early bloom but at some cost. Freeze damage was spotty — heavy in some orchards, light in others.
“I think you’ll hear a lot of growers say we got hit more than we thought we did by the cold weather” and not just in damage to the fruit. “It wasn’t necessarily freeze damage in all cases. We only had about 10 percent mortality but the problem was during March and part of April it was cold and windy. We didn’t have any bees out there working and pollination was an issue.”
Then came the rain — almost two feet worth in May.
On many days, farmers could not get into orchards to spray; when they could spray the next downpour washed the spray off, leaving the crop exposed to damage from bugs and fungus.
“And then we’ve had a couple of hail events that did cause some damage,” Kelly added. “So overall it’s been a challenging year.”

Too cold, too hot, then too wet, growers never reached a Goldilocks moment.
That doesn’t mean shoppers at this weekend’s Apple Festival won’t find the usual bounty of the crispy fruit we celebrate.
“We’re going to have apples,” Kelly said. “There will be plenty of good apples for people to buy.”
Overall, Kelly predicted an “average to slightly below average yield,” scattered frost or hail damage and thin crops in orchards where bees’ work was diminished.

Labor supply ‘a tightrope walk’

As for price, the outlook is not particularly bright there either.
“In the U.S. we started with more apples in storage than ever before,” Kelly said.
Henderson County growers have gotten their usual early season boost. Because we generally have the earliest harvest on the East Coast, growers here are the first in the market with fresh apples.
“That’s still pretty much true,” Kelly said. “In fact we were probably a little earlier even for us this year.”
Tariffs imposed by importing countries retaliating for Trump-imposed tariffs is less of an issue.
“I would say that’s going to be less impactful on us,” Kelly said. “I don’t know the exact amount that would go to international markets but it would be on the lower end.”
And it’s possible that the new trade deal with Mexico President Trump just announced this week will benefit apple farmers.
Anxiety spread throughout the farm community during an operation in March by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to pick up undocumented immigrants that ICE officials described as known felons.
“We had some things happen in the spring that were concerning,” Kelly said. “I haven’t had any specific complaints about not having labor but it’s been a little more of a tightrope walk than most years” to keep pickers and packers.
Besides picking at full tilt on Bearwallow Mountain, Nix was coordinating another big project this week. An electrician and computer programmer were finishing work on a new packing line he’s installed at the family packing house on North Ridge Road.
“We’ve got a new packing line that we’ve got to pay for and we’ve got to come up with the money to pay for it,” he said. “We’re going to run every apple we’ve got through there and the junk will go to sauce or juice or hard cider or beer.”
So far, he’s been able to hire enough workers.
“Yesterday I had 15 (pickers harvesting Galas). I’ll let you know next week because next week I’ll need 25 or 30” on the new packing line.
While Nix is predicting that hail damaged a third of his crop, he’s seen plenty of trees that escaped entirely.
“Every orchard is so much different this year,” he said. “You can literally go half a mile in one direction and everybody has a completely different scenario,” he said. “It’s the craziest year I’ve ever seen.”