Hickory Nut Gap Farm Tour summary
July 6, 2013
“Apple Orchard Management”

For our July CRAFT tour we gathered at Hickory Nut Gap Farm (HNGF) where we focused on apple orchard management. Walker Sides, the farm manager, and Mark Clarke, an employee and cousin to the owners Jamie and Amy Ager, were our gracious and knowledgeable hosts that day, sharing their growing expertise with managing fruits in our fickle mountain climate, and welcoming us to their farm.

Like most other weekend plans this year, we can’t seem to escape the rain. But, we CRAFTers were not deterred, taking refuge in the barn when needed to wait out the worst of it, and discussion never lagged. We had a great turn out and started with a brief history of the century farm that was started when Jamie Ager’s great grandparents came to the land in the early 1900s. In 2000, Jamie and Amy Ager revitalized their family’s farm when they started raising grassfed livestock. Thirteen years later, they primarily produce grass fed beef, pastured pork and poultry on 90 acres of pasture in Fairview, NC and 200 acres in Rutherfordton County. They’ve expanded production in the past several years to include certified organic mushrooms, asparagus, u-pick berries, and apples as a way to support more agritourism as well – a vital part of the Hickory Nut Gap farm business model.

As Mark Clarke put it, “The apple orchard management on the farm has been haphazard through the generations.” When his and Jamie’s great-grandparents moved to the farm, there were already several acres of apples planted, but over the next hundred years they’ve gotten inconsistent attention. However, the Agers have been consulting with Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way, and using his holistic management techniques for the past year as a way to revive the role of apples on the farm. There are close to 12 acres of orchard on the farm, and 8 of those have been planted in the past two years, greatly expanding their future production. Walker and Mark also went onto explain that it is difficult to grow apples organically and, just like we humans, lots of pests and diseases love apples, too. Apple trees are typically propagated by grafting a shoot from a desired apple tree onto rootstock. As you’re deciding which apples to plant in your orchard, it’s important to look for rootstock varieties that are resistant to the major apple ills in your area. In the newly planted orchard we visited, they plated a semi-dwarf root stock called m111 with a variety of heritage apples such as Stayman Winesap, Virginia Beauty, and American Golden Russet from Century Farm Orchards in Rockingham County, NC.

When they planted the young orchard, they prepped the field by sub-soiling, rotovating, and then augured the holes for planting three to four feet in depth. Within the rows the trees are planted 16 ft. apart. Mark went on to explain that the type of equipment you have factors into how you organize the orchard. At Hickory Nut Gap they needed to be able to fit in-between rows with their tractor and 300 gallon sprayer and spaced the rows accordingly. After planting the new apple trees, it’s important to pick any fruits that develop for the first few years until the tree is established to encourage more vigorous root growth. Once it’s ready for production, Mark and Walker have found that, since apples tend to bunch, hand thinning those bunches to the best 1-2 apples allows the apples to grow bigger.

Proper pruning aids air circulation, sunlight and spray penetration which can reduced disease and fungus growth pressure – also very important for organic production. The basic idea for pruning a young tree is to prune for your future tree. Right after planting the tree is one lead stem – the future tree trunk. When you cut the lead stem, it stimulates the tree to grow horizontal branches about three feet below the cut. Once those are grown choose the best four evenly spaced branches, cutting anything that is at a weird angle or growing at less than a 45 degree angle from the lead stem. Then, repeat this process 2-3 more times as the lead stem grows creating tiered sets of branches. Essentially, what you want is a three tiered tree with about three feet between branch clusters.

Following Michael Phillips holistic management recommendations for their spray schedule, Mark and Walker use a mixture based on neem oil, raw liquid fish, and effective microbes as a pro-biotic boost for positive microbial growth on the tree. Then, based on the time of year, and pests they’ve found, they will supplement that with Surround to combat curculio, Pyrethrum for Japanese beetles, and Cyd-X for coddling moths.

After visiting the apple orchard, we walked over to the u-pick berry patch, and then visited with the beef cattle and pigs. We made it back to potluck area just before the next rainstorm set in! Thank you so much again to the Hickory Nut Gap Farm crew for hosting us and sharing their ups and downs of managing apple orchards in the mountains.

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Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.