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Flavor 10: Organic Apples

October 14, 2014

Jamie Ager restrains a neighbor's dog, who's just chewed up some pigs and chickens, under his right arm and drives a lurching Rustler utility vehicle with his left. "My whole idea," he says, "is that if we can figure out how to do organic apples, then it would fit in with our whole system, as far as everything else we're doing, with the beef, and the pork, and the chicken...."

Jamie is co-owner of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, which produces grass-fed beef, lamb and pork as well as free range chicken and eggs. It's a family-friendly destination, with seasonal u-pick berries, tours, hay rides, pumpkins and a corn maze. Jamie is fourth generation farmer on this land. His primary passion is livestock, but he also took over management of the apples from his mom some years ago.

There's never a dull moment for a farmer, Jamie says, returning the dog to its owner. We bump on over to the new two-acre orchard, containing 250 trees planted in the spring of 2012. The apples were harvested a few weeks ago, and the turkeys roam here now, cleaning up the understory, fertilizing, and eating dropped apples -- unknowingly readying themselves for their pièce de résistance roles at Thanksgiving.

When Jamie was growing up, conventionally grown apples were Hickory Nut Gap Farm's biggest crop. Thanks to his initiative, the family has been growing all their apples organically for five years, though they also sell plenty of conventional apples sourced from other area orchards.

Jamie pulls down some remaining apples from the top of a young tree. "This is sooty blotch," he says, pointing out the dark blemishes covering much of the apple's surface, "and these small dots are flyspeck."

The organic apples right off the tree look pretty bad. But in the mouth, they smack of sweetness and offer a satisfying crunch.

Surprisingly given all the interest in organic foods in this area, Jamie is the only local grower I could find who is cultivating organic apples. And so far, he is very modest about his efforts.

"Don't listen to me -- yet," he says. Like with the livestock when he was just starting out, Jamie feels he's still in the initial learning stages with the apples and isn't ready to tell others how to grow them. "I can say, 'Hey, we're trying,'" he says. "Every time I go to a grower's meeting, I do very little talking and a whole lot of listening."

Jamie's unpretentious attitude and philosophy of experimentation have payed off in other areas of the business. Hickory Nut Gap meats are now sold in Earth Fare stores across the region and served at over 25 local restaurants. Right now, apples are only a small part of farm operations, but Jamie sees that changing in just a few years.

When the trees in the new orchard mature, he estimates annual production at 500 bushels and envisions groups of local schoolchildren picking here. He and his team have focused on planting old-time heirloom varieties like Staymans, Golden Russet, GoldRush, Virginia Beauty, and Arkansas Black, which they hope will be more naturally resistant to scab and other diseases.

"Why is it so hard to grow apples organically?" I ask.

One problem is the lack of models. "There's essentially no one out there in the textbook ag extension world," says Jamie, "that can help understand how to do this organically well. And essentially no one's doing it that well."

Jamie and his team spend a lot of time thinking about degree days -- a scientific way to precisely target application of organic pesticide Bt and other deterrents like neem oil for optimum effectiveness. They follow the spray program of Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard, and also hired Phillips as a consultant last summer.

But the climate in the mountains of Western North Carolina is especially challenging. In Oregon, California, or even in Chile, Jamie explains, organic apples are grown in dry, desert conditions -- the opposite of the humidity here. Farmers irrigate, which gives them nearly full control over fungus. In New Hampshire, where Michael Phillips grows, there is a much shorter growing season. Apples there don't bloom until May, whereas Jamie's apples might bloom the second or third week of March. This longer growing season adds to disease pressure.

"Basically consumers in this area are going to have to deal with a less perfect apple," says Jamie.

Consumers say they don't want fungicides or pesticides on their apples, he explains, but when they're faced with the choice of organic apples and much less expensive and better looking conventional apples, they'll buy the conventional apples all day long. They don't understand that it's the very chemicals they don't want on their apples that prevent cosmetic blemishes.

I go to the apple stands by the farm store and see for myself. Nice looking apples, or blotched, irregular apples for double the price. After being raised eating and seeing only "perfect" apples, it's hard to overcome my negative gut reaction to the organics -- even if they do taste great and are better for me and the planet.

"We do find ourselves doing a bit of customer education," says farm store and certifications manager Hallie Payne. People just don't realize what apples look like when grown without chemicals.

Hickory Nut Gap Farm continues to set out their organic apples alongside their better looking conventional cousins from neighboring farms, and they have a small established customer following for the organics even in these early stages. It's kind of a challenge to customers, an invitation to put their words into action.

Jamie's farm jumps through all the hoops of the certification process to prove their apples are truly organic. Unlike other farmers I've spoken with, Jamie is very positive about the organic certification process and sees real integrity and value to the word.

"Agriculture is way too complicated to be described in one word," he admits. But the organic label is very useful for busy consumers who are making quick choices at the supermarket. You do need to farm differently to get that label, he says. As a bonus, the process of certification forces their farm to keep better records, which is good for their business in general.

Jamie sees organic apples as a way to help Hickory Nut Gap Farm become a more well-rounded model of sustainable agriculture practices. Every year brings new challenges, and Jamie is okay with that. He sees learning and the success of any new farming technique as largely the result of trial and error. Ultimately, he says, everyone's got to make it work for them on their own land.

"There's the great mystery," he says. "That's really the humbling thing, is there's so much more going on out here than we can understand completely, and it's neat to pay attention to all that."

At the time of my visit, Cortland and Magnum Bonum organic apples were still available, but other organic varieties were already sold out. While waiting to taste next year's crop of organic apples, you can support Hickory Nut Gap Farm by visiting their farm store, taking a farm tour, and bringing the kids out for a fun-filled day of hay rides and feeding the animals.

A complete list of local and regional buying options for Hickory Nut Gap meats, including grocery stores, farmers markets and the farm's own CSA, can be found at the farm's website.