Long before locally grown and organic produce, specialty crops and niche markets were household words, one North Carolina couple was focusing on antique apples.
Ron and Suzanne Joyner purchased Big Horse Creek Farm, a 75-acre property in remote Lansing, in 1985. Today, the mountainous farm is home to an astonishing collection of apples, but it all began as a hobby.
The operation began to evolve more than 20 years ago when the couple purchased trees from the late heirloom collector Henry Morton. They began grafting their own trees in 1994, with particular interest in varieties once found in their own southern Appalachian region.
“Our specialty is the collection and propagation of antique and heirloom apple trees,” Ron Joyner said. “We have almost 300 varieties of apples growing in our three small orchards with another 100 to 150 varieties being raised in our nursery.”
The Joyners 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, as well as a new facility that serves as storage space and a teaching lab. They don’t even rely on others for electricity; they generate their own power with a 700-watt solar panel array and a 900-watt, wind-powered turbine erected on a 40-foot tall tower. Chores that can’t be accomplished with a John Deere 970 tractor equipped with a 50-gallon sprayer are completed by hand.
As new needs arise, Big Horse Creek Farm seeks to fulfill them in sustainable ways. They are now working on an exciting project to construct a medium-sized cold storage facility that will be powered by a diesel generator run by biodiesel produced on the farm.
“The entire process is remarkably simple and holds great promise for small, remote agricultural ventures such as ours,” Joyner said. “If successful, we hope to be able to produce enough biodiesel for our farm tractor as well.”
Growing fruit and trees
Among the hundreds of trees at Big Horse Creek Farm 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 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, 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.
Almost 4,000 trees were grafted this year, a good thing since the fruit crop was destroyed by the infamous 2007 Easter freeze.
“Even the fruiting spurs on our trees were killed… [meaning] that we may have to wait another year for the spurs to rejuvenate before we can expect a renewal of fruit production,” Joyner said, adding that the nursery trees have done well this year. “We are counting on increased trees sales this year to makeup for the loss of income from fruit sales.”
They use cuttings from their own orchards and those purchased from other collectors. Willamette Nurseries in Oregon provides the Joyners’ rootstock. By April the young trees are potted in 2-gallon containers and spend the warm months in the nursery.
Rain generally 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, respectively,” said Joyner.
Liquid sulfur and copper, in combination with the organic fungicide Serenade, are used for fungal control. Insects are managed with Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis), pyrethrins, Neem oil, insecticidal soaps and light summer oils. Dry, pelletized, organic fertilizer manufactured from composted chicken manure is applied once in the spring and is supplemented with biweekly foliar sprays of liquid fish emulsion mixed with kelp extract.
Marketing both trees and fruit has been hindered by Big Horse Creek Farm’s isolated mountaintop location, accessible only by a steep, 1.5-mile dirt road. 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,” he said. Other organically grown produce, including several varieties of gourmet garlic, accompanies 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 eight-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,” Joyner said.
Their products are also marketed through advertising, public speaking and workshops and they are involved in planning a new agritourism trail in their area, but Joyner 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.
A unique service offered by the Joyners is custom grafting from cuttings or scion wood sent by customers, allowing them to propagate a dying tree.
“We have been able to save countless trees for individuals who otherwise might have lost these old, valuable family keepsakes,” Joyner said.
Big Horse Creek also supplies other nurseries and is seeing a surge in sales to new ventures specializing in antique apples. Those undergoing historic farm restorations also have purchased their trees. The farm has recently supplied trees to the restored orchards in the Antietam National Battlefield, the Samuel Mudd Historic Home in Maryland and the restored family farm at the Oconoluftee Visitor’s Center in the Great Smoky National Park.
“[It is rewarding to be] recognized and appreciated for our efforts in helping to preserve antique and heirloom apples, “ Joyner said. “We derive a great deal of pleasure in the satisfaction we bring to people through our work.”
Learn more by visiting www.bighorsecreekfarm.com or calling 336-384-1134.
The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.