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North Carolina Couple Propagates Rare Trees

North Carolina’s apple industry is among the prominent ones in the United States, with more than 4 million bushels produced annually. Most of the state’s 9,000 acres of orchards are planted in Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Rome Beauty and Gala. However, one operation has strayed from the mainstream and is devoted to less well-known varieties, perhaps types commercial growers have never seen.

High upon a mountain in northwestern North Carolina, accessible only by heavy-duty vehicles able to withstand a steep climb up a one and one-half mile dirt road, is Big Horse Creek Farm. The 75-acre property is home to an amazing collection of rare apple trees.

“Our specialty is the collection and propagation of antique and heirloom apple trees, “ said Ron Joyner, who purchased the farm with his wife, Suzanne, in 1985. ”We have almost 300 varieties of apples growing in our three small orchards, with another 100 to 150 varieties being raised in our nursery.”

Among those hundreds of trees are the uniquely flavored Limbertwig, the pie baker’s favorite, Kinnaird’s Choice and York Imperial, which is well suited for long storage. Apples indigenous to the farm’s southern Appalachian region, as well as varieties common in countries across the globe, are propagated by the Joyners. Yellow Transparent, Cox Orange Pippin and Arkansas Black trees are some of the biggest sellers.

“Our most unique variety is perhaps the Bunker Hill, simply because of the extreme rarity of this apple, “ Ron said. “I have never seen this apple mentioned in any of the old literature (except The Apples of New York, published in 1905) nor have I seen it listed with any of the many apple collectors we know across the country.”

New York residents who had a single tree on their property shared the variety with the Joyners. Now it is established at Big Horse Creek Farm, where it will be propagated in the future.

The operation began as a hobby 20 years ago, when the Joyners purchased trees from the late heirloom collector Henry Morton. They began grafting their own trees in 1994. Today, it is their full-time occupation, but the production of fruit and trees remains a family operation.

Ron and Suzanne run their business without outside assistance. Suzanne handles nursery operations, while Ron is in charge of the orchards and gardens. In addition, they built their own home and barn and presently are constructing a new facility that will serve as storage space and as a teaching lab. They don’t even rely on others for electricity, but generate their own power with a 700-watt solar panel array and a 900-watt wind-powered turbine erected on a 40-foot tower. Chores that can’t be accomplished with a John Deere 970 tractor equipped with a 50-gallon sprayer are completed by hand.

They expect to graft almost 4,000 trees during 2006, with grafting planned for late winter. They use cuttings from their own orchards and those purchased from other collectors. Willamette Nurseries in Oregon provides the rootstock. By April, the young trees are potted in 2-gallon containers and spend the warm months in the nursery.

Rain is plentiful in the farm’s Blue Ridge Mountain region. If necessary, spring water pumped through a gravity-fed system is tapped for hand watering. To automate this for the future, the Joyners are creating a drip irrigation system.

“Our greatest disease and insect problems on our young trees are apple scab and potato leafhoppers,” Ron said. “To control the scab, we rely on a mixture of organic sulfur and Captan chemical fungicide. For insect control, we use a combination of Sevin, Imidan and organic pyrethrins.”

They use Osmocote slow-release fertilizer (19-6-12 formulation) at potting time and a foliar spray of fish emulsion and kelp extract during the growing season.

A unique service offered by the Joyners is custom grafting from cuttings or scion wood sent by customers, helping them to propagate a dying favorite tree.

“We have been able to save countless trees for individuals who otherwise might have lost these old valuable family keepsakes,” Ron said.

Marketing both their trees and fruit has been hindered by Big Horse Creek Farm’s remote location, which doesn’t lend itself to an on-farm sales venue. The Ashe County Farmers’ Market, which Ron manages on a volunteer basis, is an important local resource.

“In a good year, we will typically have around 100 varieties or more to offer throughout the season, beginning in July and running through November,” Ron said.

Other organically grown produce, including several varieties of gourmet garlic, accompany the apples to market in nearby West Jefferson, N.C.

The advent of the Internet has been a tremendous asset for marketing the farm’s trees. The 6-year-old Web site is now responsible for 90 percent of tree sales, with the remainder being sold locally.

“Having the ability to provide for (the growing customer interest in heirloom trees) through the use of the Internet has been of immense value to our business pursuits,” Ron said.

Their products also are marketed through advertising, public speaking and workshops, and they are involved in planning a new agritourism trail in their area, but Ron said something truer to Big Horse Creek’s philosophy has been the most vital.

“Much of the success we currently enjoy, both locally and nationally, is attributable in great part to old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising,” he said.

Committed environmentalists, the Joyners are active with the Nature Conservancy and the National Committee for the New River, the world’s second oldest river. More than 90 percent of their acreage is set aside in a conservation easement managed by the New River preservation group.

“The greatest honor we have received is being recognized and appreciated for our efforts in helping to preserve antique and heirloom apples,” Ron said. “Ours is indeed a labor of love and we derive a great deal of pleasure in the satisfaction we bring to people through our work.”

For more information, visit http://www.bighorsecreekfarm.com or call (336) 384-1134.


Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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