Outlook improves for N.C. growers
Good apple sites are also good view sites, which was a cause of conflict.
It took some land leveling to make a place for the Apple Wedge packing house.
The view from the high hill behind the packing shed at Apple Wedge Packing is worth climbing to see. Until two years ago, stunning views like that were one of the reasons owner Greg Nix wasn’t planting new apple orchards, and was, in fact, pushing out some old ones.
All around Hendersonville, North Carolina, hilltops were coveted for conversion to house sites. Nix’s Apple Hill Orchards near Edneyville could have become just another clever name for a suburb. Now, with the bloom off the housing market, this old apple-growing area is settling back a bit, and Greg, a fifth-generation apple grower, is putting in some new trees.
Greg packs about 200,000 boxes of apples a year, under the Apple Wedge brand name. About half the apples are from his production, and the other half comes from 15 to 20 smaller growers he packs for. Apple Wedge Packing and Cider is the largest fresh apple packer in North Carolina.
Apples have to move up and down the roads, as do tractors and sprayers. Residential development threatens not just the land but shapes the environment in which the farmers operate.
The apple growers around Hendersonville have their hands full already dealing with their natural environment; the hills and valleys are a difficult-to-manage asset.
The orchard plantings tend to follow the contours of the steep hillsides. And while the growers don’t build terraces, they flatten the alleys somewhat between rows after the trees are planted. Standing in an alley, one looks up at one row of trees and down at the next one.
Despite the terrain, Nix built his own self-leveling platform and uses it for pruning and other orchard operations, like stretching wire, even on the hillsides.
Space for the packing house and storage was literally carved out of a mountain. “A lot of buildings in Henderson County sit on Apple Hill soil,” Greg said about all the earth moving that went on.
The original packing plant was built in 1983, then rejuvenated in 1997 when Greg added a four-lane electronic sorter and sizer with capability to put apples into trays or bags. In 2009, the plant was expanded with the addition of 9,000 square feet of apple cold storage and a treatment area for application of MCP. Most North Carolina apples are sold by the end of the production season, but Nix carries packing into early winter.
Historically, North Carolina was a processing apple producing area forced by changing circumstances to shift to the fresh market. Greg grew up working on the farm while in high school in the 1970s. Then, it was owned by his grandfather, who worked it with Greg’s uncle. His own father, an electrician, was not part of the operation. In the early 1980s, Greg joined with the uncle, and, together, they expanded the apple operation and began the packing business.
Greg is now 51, and, since 1997, he and his wife, Lisa, have been sole owners. Greg and his uncle split the operation—in a friendly way, he said—and went their own ways. The Nixes have two young adult children, Katie and Christin, who work on the farm when not in college and high school, and they also employ a nephew Steven Godfrey, 26, as their orchard manager.
Greg concentrates on marketing. “I take care of all the sales myself,” he said. Steven manages the orchards, and another employee manages the packing house. The farm, which had about 2,000 apple trees on 30 acres when Greg began, now has about 45,000 trees on 150 acres.
The transition to fresh market entailed both a change in varieties and a change in the way lower quality fruit was handled. Greg developed markets with Walmart, Food Lion, and Ingles—important supermarket chains in the Southeast—and also with school systems and the military.
As local processors closed their doors and growers had to ship processing quality apples several hundred miles, Nix took a different tack. In 1995, he and his uncle formed Apple Wedge Cider, which now produces more than 100,000 gallons of cider every year. Greg sells the juice, made with a continuous-feed belt press and flash pasteurized, to his wholesale fresh apple customers, as well as to local markets. They press cider, using a three-variety blend, from August until mid-March.
The Nixes tried some direct marketing, but Greg much prefers the wholesale business. They have drawn away from marketing on the farm and from some of the entertainment ventures, like orchard and packing house tours, that they were trying.
They do sell some fruit at the farm, including peaches. They planted 10 acres and 11 varieties of white and yellow freestone varieties as a new venture, and they are available from about July 20 to Labor Day. Most peaches are also sold wholesale.
Different apple orchards reflect the farm’s evolution. Already in 1986, Nix was planting Golden Delicious on Mark rootstock at a 6- by 14-foot planting. Very productive still, that orchard has averaged more than a thousand bushels per acre over the last few years. More recent plantings include Autumn Rose Fuji on Malling 9, and Pink Lady on Budagovsky 9.
“Greg is a very progressive grower and is always looking to the future,” said Marvin Owings, the extension director in Henderson County. “This past winter, Greg and some of his employees attended the International Fruit Tree Association meeting in Washington. After seeing some of the impressive new planting and tree training systems, Greg and his employees decided to put in their own trial back home. He installed six different systems (spindle, V, and Y) using wire support. The variety selected was Ultimate Gala on Bud.9 rootstock with spacing that ranges from 2 by 12 to 6 by 12 [feet]. Greg is always striving to increase production and quality and at the same time cut cost.”
IFTA members visited the Nix operation in 2008.