The Brushy Mountain Apple Festival in downtown North Wilkesboro on Saturday celebrates the heritage of western North Carolina and one of many great things about living here - proximity to tree-ripened apples available directly from the families that grow them.
Local orchardists are in the midst of harvesting a good crop of apples. Most will be represented with stands at the festival, plus business is typically busier than normal at apple houses near their orchards that day.
Many things influence the quality of a given year’s apple crop, but lack of rain on the Brushies during much of the growing season this year resulted in apples with higher sugar content and therefore sweeter flavor.
Newer apples like Honeycrisp will get more attention, but old reliable varieties like Golden Delicious are especially tasty this year.
The Brushy Mountains of Wilkes and Alexander counties have been known as an ideal area for commercial apple production at least since the early 1900s because of the “thermal belt” of warmer air on middle elevation mountain slopes that makes frost or freezing temperatures less likely than at lower or higher elevations.
Simultaneously, temperatures can be in the upper 20s in the Wilkesboros and about 50 degrees in the Brushy Mountains. A heavy frost is unheard of on the Brushies.
What makes this occur?
Heat absorbed by soil in the daytime radiates from the land surface at night and rises, which makes air closest to the ground colder.
Cold air near the ground at middle elevations then moves into valleys below because cold air sinks. This forces warm air in the valleys upward until it gets trapped at middle elevations by continuous movement of air above mountain ridges.
Wind and other weather factors that influence this condition vary so spring freeze/frost is still the biggest weather risk. The possibility of hail, strong wind, drought and excessive rain are among other risks.
For decades, the Brushy Mountain apple business was based on growing and wholesaling a few long-standing varieties like Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Stayman through the Brushy Mountain Apple Cooperative. The co-op provided grading, packing and collective marketing and sales of Brushy Mountain apples to retailers and apple processors.
Foreign and domestic competition, regulations and lack of interest in carrying on family operations led to closure of the co-op in 1992 and a great drop in the number of orchardists on the Brushies.
Most of those who remain rely primarily on retail sales of apples, peaches and other tree fruits they grow, along with tree fruit products (such as cider, fried pies and slushies) and other locally-sourced food products at their apple houses.
Agri-tourism, including pick-your-own and hosting school groups for tours, will likely become increasingly important to them.
Low-grade apples that used to be sold for processing are now mostly sold to hunters who put them out to bait deer.
Local and western North Carolina orchardists have benefitted from increased consumer interest in locally-grown, healthy food and an explosion of new apple varieties like Pink Lady and Honeycrisp.
Besides their great taste, Pink Lady apples extend the season because they’re picked in October and November.
Honeycrisp apples were selected as one of the top 25 innovations in over a decade in the 2006 Better World Report.
Among the first “new varieties” was Gala, introduced in the 1970s. The U.S. Apple Association reported that Gala apples surpassed Red Delicious as the top-selling variety in the U.S. in 2018. Red Delicious had been the top apple for at least five decades.
There also is more interest in old apple varieties like Brushy Mountain Limbertwig, which once were the top-selling apples.