Minutes September 21 — Jefferson County Apple Orchard

Minutes of the September meeting at Jefferson County Apple Orchard.
The weather was overcast but we were fortunate enough to be able to have our meeting and talk in the break room of the orchard.  The rain held off until after our tour of the orchard and watching the pickers. How lucky can you get!  As always breakfast was wonderful.

Breakfast Chatting

GEG 092113 Orchard MeetingOur chatter lead to critters—squirrels (not deer) eating everything.  The solution was squirrel dinners and pellet guns. We talked about a demonstration that one of our members (and I am sorry that I didn’t get the name) went to on straw block gardening put on by the Extension Service.  We decided that maybe we can get the same talk for next spring. If you have problems with your tillers, it was recommended that you go to Deans at the intersection Flowing Springs and Job Corps road. For a beautiful blend of daffodils, look at White Flower Farms. Pink Girl is still a favorite tomato but the Amish Paste is a very close second. Larry and Mark, can we get some seeds from these tomatoes for our winter meeting? As a matter-of-fact, everyone please save seeds to share at our winter meeting.


Renny brought variegated sage to share and Larry brought tomatoes and squash.

Jefferson County Orchard

Jefferson County Apple Orchard StoreRonald Slonaker then took the floor and talked to us about the Jefferson County Orchard. He’s lived and worked at the Orchard since he was three years old and has worked there for forty-five years. It was established in the late 1800s. They use to work about 1,000 acres. In late 1980–90, they leased much of the property. They produced 200 to 300 bushels of apples and 7,500 peaches with a big staff. The packing house eventually needed a major overhauling. They no longer could put stickers on all of the fruit by hand as was required. The cost of replacing and upgrading the equipment was greater than the profit which was becoming less and less. About six years ago, they quit packing and sent their fruit out. The whole business is changing. There use to be about forty orchards in Jefferson County. Now there are two! The demand was for big beautiful fruit—not taste—and our orchards could not compete with Washington State, where they have a shorter growing season but not the bug problems that we have. Now the trend is changing again and the request is for taste, not looks. Because of their arid climate, our fruit tastes better. Another problem is that China sells fruit concentrate way cheaper than Jefferson County could. It was selling for eight to ten cents in the 1980s and now it is two to three cents. The cost of land is higher here too, so it doesn’t make sense to use it for a commodity that doesn’t give the payback. There are thousands of varieties of apples and the varieties change. Red Delicious use to be the favorite but now we have moved to the Gala.

They start spraying the trees in early April and do it every week. Sometimes it translates into every other week because they spray one side of the tree one week and the other the next. They are always changing what they spray because the pests become resistant to the chemicals. When the stink bugs came on the scene, it was devastating. The spray that they used for the stink bugs kills everything, even the insects that naturally take care of some of the problems. They now have traps that the Extension Service checks and tells them when the counts are high with different insects. This indicates what type of spray they need to use. They are having a real problem with mites. The predators that were killed trying to get rid of the stink bugs use to take care of mites. There are thirty-nine scientists working on the stink bug issue at Bardane.

Last year there was a terrible problem with wooly apple aphids because their natural predators were disrupted. It was so bad that the orchard looked like snow and it felt like honey on the trees. The pickers used only one set of clothes to pick because it ruined their clothes and sometimes caused a rash. We have always had stink bugs but not the brown marmorated stink bug. They are in thirty–five states. USDA is monitoring the stink bug and trying to come up with a solution. The spraying is stopped two to three weeks before it is time to start picking. The bugs seem to be surrounding and waiting for that moment! When the stink bug attacks the fruit, it can’t even be used for applesauce—maybe apple butter because it is the same color as the affected fruit.

Apples in binThe migrant workers start in Florida picking oranges, move to Georgia to pick blueberries, then here, and then to Michigan or Washington for their fruit. Slonaker used to house a hundred migrants but now he is lucky to need twenty. As the apples trees get old and need to be replaced, they are dug up and the land is put in corn or soy, with more corn fields than orchards now. The same crew leaders work every year. The migrants know how to do their job and do it well and quickly. They are paid by the huge square crates that they fill, not by the hour. Years ago Jefferson County had labor camps where the migrants stayed, but legal issues ended that practice.

Watching the pickers was amazing. They have a bucket that is oval with no bottom in it. Instead it has a circular piece of canvas attached to the end of the bucket with a cord running through the bottom of the canvas. The canvas is folded up and the cord is hooked on to pulleys on each sides of the bucket. The weight of the apples pulls the cord down the pulley and holds about three-quarters of a bushel of apples. It is really neat to see and amazing how many apples are on one tree and how fast the workers fill their buckets.

Apples loaded on treeThe orchard uses sprays and sometimes vibrates the trees to get some of the blossoms off so that the fruit is bigger. You need to keep sunlight in the trees. Many are going to smaller trees but they need support. For the smaller trees it takes a lot more trees and the expense of support and expert trimmers. Prune trees when three-quarters of the leaves are off. Peaches are pruned in February, and the suckers cut off in the summer. Crab apples can be great pollinators and trees can be a hundred feet apart and still pollinate.

The packing industry here is gone. The best way to sell fruit is direct to the customer but that’s not really possible. According to Slonaker, the new Route 9 has really affected him; he is slowly getting out of the business.  Regarding your own backyard fruit trees, Slonaker recommends that we chop down our fruit trees and buy our fruit. It is a lot cheaper and much less worry. The care of a few trees in your back yard is very difficult, time consuming, and expensive.

Last meeting of the year October 19 at Sam Michaels Park Pavilion, 11:30am.
Bring a side dish or desert. See you there!