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Festival honors Apple Farmer of the Year

Mike Stepp, holding Apple Farmer of the Year Award, is surrounded by family at the farm's apple stand on Main Street. Mike Stepp, holding Apple Farmer of the Year Award, is surrounded by family at the farm's apple stand on Main Street.

"Proof that the apple does not fall far from the tree," a second generation grower who has expanded the family enterprise from a popular U-pick orchard to school tours, a pumpkin patch and other products was named Henderson County Apple Farmer of the Year Friday as the community opened the 73rd North Carolina Apple Festival downtown.


Under blue skies and near perfect temperatures, the Apple Festival honored Mike Stepp, of Hillcrest in Edneyville, as the top apple farmer for this year. Mike's father, J.H. Stepp, was the Apple Festival's second Apple Farmer of the Year, in 2010.

The person who nominated Stepp described him as a "humble man who instills the love of farming in the hearts of his children and grandchildren, a faithful steward of the land God has given him (and) a generous giver with a servant's heart," Fair Waggoner, the United Community Bank executive, said in presenting the award.

A board member of several organizations that serve agriculture, Stepp has continued a farming legacy started by his mother and father, Yvonne and J.H. Stepp, who branched out into the U-pick business in 1969. "This year that business celebrates 50 years," Waggoner said. "Now, in addition to pick your own, that business has expanded to include hayrides, school tours, pumpkins, cider donuts and much much more. Mike Stepp loves the Lord God first, his family second and his tractor third."

Stepp thanked United Community Bank and everyone who supports farming.

"We have some goals that we set as a family each year and we strive to meet those goals," he said. "We want to always remember to celebrate working with family. It is really special to us. In a busy season we sometimes forget so we have to really focus. Also, we want to always provide good quality products and services to our guest to our farm. And also, something that's very important to us as a family, we want to honor and glorify God in all we think, say and do. We want to be a business of integrity. We want to wish everyone a safe, successful, and happy 73rd Apple Festival."

Apple Ambassador Kaitlyn Ledbetter thanked the crowd, encouraged everyone to support and thank apple farmers. Using American Sign Language as she spoke, she shared her hope to travel abroad on missions "and tell the deaf and hard of hearing about God."

Parade Grand Marshal Tom Orr, a retired teacher, pointed out the history of buildings within site of the festival stage.

"We appreciate the past but we do not live in the past," he said. "We live to a bright future. I am a teacher and foremost a teacher and I honor those teachers that I represent here today they are a tremendous group of people who have been with us since 1797 when the Mills River Academy was established in Mills River and on down through the ages until now."

He asked the audience to "think of an outstanding teacher, a teacher you cherished because they did something significant in your life. They gave you a joy for learning or they solved a problem that you had." Think of that person, he urged the crowd, close your eyes, say their name out loud and say thank you.