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Henderson County apples: --generations of tradition.

Western North Carolina grows lots of apples. Apples grow well here because of our cool nights and long sunny summer days. For over two hundred years, apples have been an important crop for Appalachian farmers. Henderson County, NC produces over eighty percent of the apples grown in the state (with much of the rest coming from other western North Carolina counties) and is the seventh largest apple producing county in the United States. For many generations, apples were a good crop for farmers in the region. Times are changing, and apple farmers are in trouble. Competition from cheap apples from all over the world, the loss of local processing, and recent weather are leaving apple growers reeling. Apple growers are looking for new ways to keep the local farms healthy while continuing to produce some of the best tasting apples in the world. From innovative direct marketing to organic production, apple growers are doing whatever they can to keep doing what they love--growing great apples.

Driving through Henderson County in western North Carolina, it soon becomes evident that you are in apple country. In all directions, the orchards of the more than 200 farm families that grow apples in the area follow the contours of the hills and have shaped the cultural and physical landscape of Henderson County for over two centuries. "Apples are a natural for our area" says Sonya Stepp Hollingsworth of Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard, "Cool nights and sunny days make great tasting apples!"

Sonya is the fifth generation of Stepps to grow apples, and she intends to keep the family tradition going. Her orchard covers fifty acres and includes 22 varieties of apples. The orchard is currently being worked with three generations of Stepps, and that's the main reason why Sonya is still in the apple business. When asked what she likes best about growing apples, she smiles and says "being able to work with my daddy." Her daddy is 83-year-old J.H. Stepp and "he still runs the orchard." Sonya's daughter and niece also work on the farm, making three generations working side by side to keep the family farm going.

Since the late 1700's, farmers have grown apples in Henderson County. For generations, farmers prospered selling apples within the region. Only after rail service arrived in the early Twentieth Century did national shipping arrive. For many years, there were apple processors in the area that bought up much of the apple crop and help modernize the apple industry in North Carolina. Today, there are 5,500 acres in orchards in Henderson County.

But modernization also brought world trade and cheaper processing in other parts of the world. By the end of the Twentieth Century, all the apple processors had left Henderson County and the whole country was being flooded with low-priced apple concentrate from China and cheap apples from all over the world. The apple story is very similar to the story of agriculture from throughout the region--our local food system is being destroyed and we are losing local farms at an alarming rate.

Stepp's Orchard is working to rebuild a local food system by reconnecting people with the farms and orchards that grow local food. Stepp's is part of the Blue Ridge Direct Marketing Association, a group of 35 apple orchards that are trying to bring people back to the farm to support local orchards. At many of the orchards and farm stands, you can meet the farmer, see how apples are grown, and even get out in the field and pick your own. Stepp's and other orchards are also hosting local elementary schools for farm tours that include educational opportunities with hayrides, pick your own apples, and other farm activities. "There is something very special when kids (and their parents) get to pick their own apples and see where there food comes from," says Sonya, "They just light up!"

Another farmer in the county is taking a different approach to saving the family farm. Anthony Owens has transitioned part of his orchard to certified organic production. Growing organic apples in the area is brand new and Anthony is leading the charge. On his Windy Ridge Farms' orchard Anthony loves to show off his beautiful organic apples. Anthony's approach to saving the family, orchard is to open it up to a whole new group of consumers. Growing apples organically is much more expensive and labor intensive, but organically certified fruit brings a premium price. It also allows Anthony entrance into specialty stores like Earth Fare, the Hendersonville and Asheville food co-ops, and large chain health stores like Whole Foods. Anthony knows that only through the support of the local community has he been able to grow organic apples. It is a three-year transition period from conventional production to organic and without the local support Anthony never would have been able to afford the change. The reception to his organic apples has been so great that he has branched out into organic and Naturally Grown produce. "I see farms and orchards disappearing everyday," says Owens. "People are beginning to understand that our local farms need support. We can grow food here that is as good as anywhere in the world. All we need is the chance."

The moral of the Hendersonville apple story is we must support our local farms if we want to continue to have farms as pan of our southern Appalachian landscape. Not getting food from local farms has led to our rather radical disconnect with our food and where and how it came to arrive on our dinner plates. It's also led to the destruction of the infrastructure that supports local farms. For 10,000 years of agriculture, all food has been local. Only in the last fifty years or so have we lost our connection to the farms that sustain us and to any control we have over the food that we eat. Although this has been a relatively short time, the change has been profound. Not only have we lost power--the power to effect how our food is grown, how far it travels, and how it is processed we have lost much of our ability to re-create a local food system. This is a dangerous place to be, and the next few years will be very important in western North Carolina for re-building a local food system.

Where do you get locally grown food? Fortunately, there is a source for locating locally gown food. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) compiles listings from throughout western North Carolina of farms, u-picks, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), tailgate markets, restaurants, grocers, bed and breakfasts, and bakers and caterers that sell locally grown food. The Local Food Guide is on-line at and the printed Guide is available at local businesses that support local agriculture. Windy Ridge Farms' apples and produce can be found at local stores that sell organic produce, and information and locations for the orchards of the Blue Ridge Direct Market Association can be found in the Local Food Guide. Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard is open from late August until the first of November and can be reached at 828-685-9083. Many other orchards in the area stay open until Christmas.

Charlie Jackson is the Local Food Campaign Director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. For more info on ASAP, contact him at 828-293-3262,
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Title Annotation:Appalachian Farms:
Author:Jackson, Charlie
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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