The apple harvest is in high gear as orchardists simultaneously prepare for Saturday’s Brushy Mountain Apple Festival in downtown North Wilkesboro, making this one of their busiest weeks of the year.
“It takes the biggest part of a week for us to get all the apples bagged up that we take to the festival,” said orchardist Armit Tevepaugh of Vannoy Ridge Road in the Brushy Mountain community.
After continued dry and unseasonably hot weather this week with highs around 90 Wednesday and Thursday, a period with temperatures more normal for autumn is supposed to begin Saturday. The forecast calls for highs in the low 70s Saturday and continuing at least through mid-October, the month when apple sales peak.
Brushy Mountain orchardists said cooler temperatures are needed to bring more color to this year’s crop, but it otherwise has excellent quality. Lack of rain in recent weeks resulted in apples with higher sugar content and therefore especially good flavor.
Overall there appears to be about 75% of a full crop of apples on the Brushies this year, with some local growers reporting as much as 80-90% and some as little as 50% of what they believe is a full crop.
The reduction was mostly due to poor pollination of apple blossoms in the spring when the weather was cool, windy and wet. In addition, some varieties that produce less fruit the year immediately after a large crop were plentiful last year.
Too much or too little rain can damage apple trees, with dwarf apple trees being especially vulnerable to drought due to shallow roots. Some varieties are more prone to drop fruit prematurely due to dry weather, but there is concern about the risk of some varieties of apples cracking if too much rain falls.
Parts of the Brushies received as much as a quarter of an inch of rain late Friday night and early Saturday morning and about one-tenth of an inch early Monday morning.
Adequate rain is needed to help Pink Lady apples, one of the most popular varieties, avoid dropping prematurely and develop properly. Pink Lady apples are harvested starting in late October and continuing in November.
An updated U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday included most of Wilkes County in the portion of the state experiencing moderate drought, but better conditions on the Brushy Mountain were reflected in that area being identified as abnormally dry.
Hot days hastened the ripening of fruit enough to put the harvest on nearly a normal schedule rather than being late this year. Although it doesn’t impact flavor, consumers may notice light brown sunburn spots on some varieties due to unseasonably high temperatures this growing season.
Orchardist Gray Faw of the Brushy Mountain community said some varieties fared better with this year’s weather than others, which he said helps explain retail price variations among varieties.
Varieties for sale now (or soon) at apple houses on the Brushies include freshly-picked Honeycrisp, Gala, Cameo, Stayman, Gingergold, Paula Red, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Empire, Mutsu and more, all with their own unique flavors and other characteristics.
Faw said there is strong demand for “heirloom” varieties, which include Virginia Beauty, Limbertwig, Magna Bonum, Buckingham, Summer Rambo and Rusty Coat. Some of these originated in North Carolina and some go back hundreds of years. Limbertwig apples are strongly associated with the Brushies.
Orchardist Ty Lowe of Perry Lowe Orchards in the Pores Knob community said his operation has had one of its better years so far—and certainly a far cry from last year when a summer hail storm damaged a large portion of his crop. “When a catastrophe like that happens, it takes more than a year to catch up,” said Lowe.
Perry Lowe Orchards consists of about 100 acres of orchards in Wilkes and Alexander counties producing about 30 varieties of apples. “We try to plant about 5,000 apple trees a year” as replacements for old trees, he said. These include several new varieties that will soon be producing enough to sell.
He said a relatively new variety, Honeycrisp, “has just about taken over and sometimes hinders sales of other varieties.” Due to demand and challenges with growing Honeycrisp apples, orchardists sell them for a premium price.
Lowe has been selling a related but more tart variety, Crimson Crisp, for about five years. Harvesting of his Suncrisp apples started this week.
“If I hadn’t planted Pink Lady apples when I did (several years ago), I wouldn’t be here today” in the orchard business, he added.
Perry Lowe Orchards started allowing customers to pick their own apples this year for the first time. U-pick sales began on Sept. 14 and are only on weekends and for certain varieties.
It also is among the operations on the Brushies that host school groups during the harvest season.