“The Carolina Mountains are, by nature, one of the best fruit regions in eastern America. Apples, grapes, and berries, especially, thrive exceedingly well.” ~Horace Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders, 1913. pp 38
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
Apples are a traditional and valuable part of our heritage in North Carolina. The most popular varieties nationwide–Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Gala–are grown here. In the western part of the state over 10,000 acres of orchards produce 75,000 tons of apples every year. Most growers maintain a farm store where shoppers can purchase fresh apples, apple butter, cider, and pies. Henderson County ranks as one of the top ten apple producing counties in the United States and hosts the North Carolina Apple Festival every Labor Day weekend.
In step with other regional festivals, thousands of visitors attend to enjoy music, food, displays, and native crafts. Like many industries in Western North Carolina, apple growing has struggled to keep up with modern technology and outside competition. In the past most of the apples grown in the region were processed, producing items like apple juice and apple sauce. However, with the increasing number of tourists, residents, and retail outlets, many apples are now sold through fresh-market channels.
In Southern Appalachia, the cool nights of late August and early September signal the end of summer, the return of the school year and, for many farmers, the approaching apple harvest. For generations, apples have been highly valued by residents of the region. In the 19th century, fruit trees were found on most family farms, adding diversity to mountain agriculture. Time-honored apple recipes circulated throughout rural communities. These described various methods of cooking, canning, preserving, and distilling. In the late 1800s new roads and rail systems linked western North Carolina with outside markets. Consequently, mountain apples found their way to, and became popular in, many eastern cities. Soon they were being grown for economic trade as well as local consumption. They quickly became one of the most valuable cash crops produced in the region.
Nationally, North Carolina consistently ranks among the top ten apple-producing states, with over 200 commercial orchards growing apples on over 10,000 acres. The approximately 150 million pounds of apples grown in these orchards contribute almost $20 million to the local economy. Apples are grown commercially in four regions of North Carolina, all in the western part of the state. The largest producing region, around Henderson County, contributes 70-80% of the state’s crop. Here, along most every roadway, apple orchards dot the landscape. Depending on variety, an apple tree begins to blossom and bear fruit in as few as three years. As summer draws to a close, the cool weather causes the enzymes in the apple’s skin to change color from green to red. This same process places the pink “blush” on Granny Smiths and adds the yellow color to the Golden Delicious.
An apple a day …
Apples are high in pectin and fiber. In fact, one apple contains the fiber equal to that found in one bowl of breakfast cereal. Additionally, apples contain nutrients proved to be beneficial in preventing certain cancers and heart disease. Their versatility enables them to be enjoyed naturally or in various recipes. When searching for a substitution for processed, sugary, or high-fat snacks, apples are a great alternative.
There are many, in fact thousands, of apple varieties. In western North Carolina, the Rome Beauty variety is the favorite amongst commercial growers. Primarily, it is shipped to processors for use in products like apple juice, apple sauce, and apple pie. Fresh-market growers usually choose one of three varieties popular throughout the nation: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Gala. With the growing number of residents and visitors to the region, an increasing number of fruit stands and tailgate markets offer these fresh favorites from early autumn to late winter.
One of the largest and oldest festivals in the state is held every Labor Day weekend in Hendersonville: the North Carolina Apple Festival. In 2006, it will mark its 60th consecutive year. Held primarily to recognize the apple and importance of the apple industry, it transforms the downtown area into eight city blocks filled with music, food, crafts, and vendors. On the last day of the festival, the celebration culminates with the King Apple Parade followed by a community street dance.
Other popular, apple-themed destinations include The Orchard at Altapass, Barber Orchard Fruit Stand, Hickory Nut Gap Farm, and the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival. Visit the links below for additional activities and information.
The fact that Johnny Appleseed never visited Southern Appalachia does not diminish the impact apples have had on mountain culture for well over 100 years. Beginning as sustenance for early European settlers, to providing a livelihood for thousands of farm workers, to their importance within local tourism, apples are a valuable and traditional part of our Mountain Heritage.
This essay was based on information provided by North Carolina State University, the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, the Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association, and the NC Apple Festival.
Photographs by Judy Carson of the Historic Orchard at Altapass http://www.altapassorchard.com
For more information please see:
- Old Southern Apples, Creighton Calhoun, 1995.
- North Carolina Agriculture: Our Heritage, York Kiker, 1982.
- North Carolina: From the Mountains to the Sea, The North Carolina Association of County Agricultural Agents, 1988.
- 2009 Cashiers Apple Festival
- Western NC Apple Orchard Listings for Apple Journal.com
- Crop Profile for Apples in North Carolina
- Apple Facts from the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
- Western NC farm listings at Pick Your Own.org
- Hendersonville, NC Apple Orchards
- North Carolina Apple Festival