North Carolina family carries on the tradition of growing apples

The tradition of apple growing is alive and well in North Carolina. About 300 growers continue to provide the state with different varieties of apples and apple products, says Mike Parker, a board advisor to the North Carolina Apple Growers Association and an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University. He adds that the state ranks seventh in U.S. apple production.

David Coston checks the ripeness of apples in his pick-your-own orchard outside of Hendersonville, N.C.

Of that 300, Henderson County, N.C., growers produce more than 85 percent of the apples grown in the state, says Marvin Owings, interim county director and extension agent.

Lola and David Coston continue to supply apples to locals and tourists at Coston Farm & Apple House outside Hendersonville. Both are members of the North Carolina Apple Growers Association, the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association and the Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association (BRFDMA). Lola is a board member of the NC Apple Growers Association, vice president of the BRFDMA and secretary of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association.

There are three generations of apple growers on David’s father’s side, including his grandfather, Henry, and his father, Frank. The four generations of apple growers on his mother’s side started with great-grandfather Ben Merrell in the late 1800s, then grandfather Roy and on to Opal, David’s mother. David and Lola’s children – Brent, Derrick, Holly Metcalf and Rachel – constitute the fourth and fifth generations.

David’s sister, Sandra Caldwell, says her father started growing apples in the mid-1930s, when he was about 17 years old. Sandra, who worked for DuPont for 23 years, works part time at the Apple House. The family operates approximately 130 acres of apple orchards.

Future generations

The Costons’ four children are involved part-time and bring their influences and interests to the operation. “They always have new ideas,” Lola says, “and most of them are good. Our son [Brent] works in manufacturing, so he has good ideas as far as the business planning end of it and helping us with Good Agricultural Practices certifications. My daughter [Holly] has been helping with Web design and also marketing ideas. And our other son, Derrick, who lives in Montana right now, has lots of marketing and business ideas that he sends our way.” Rachel works in retail sales after school and on weekends.

Ripe apples hang from the trees at the Coston Farm pick-your-own orchard in Henderson County, N.C. According to Marvin Owings, interim county director and extension agent, Henderson County grows more than 85 percent of the apples in North Carolina.

The orchard

David manages the orchards and supervises his wholesale operation. He grows several varieties of apples, including Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, Gala, Jonathan, Mutsu, Fuji, Early Fuji, Granny Smith, Empire, Cameo, Pink Lady, Rome Beauty, Cortland, Hoover, Jonagold, Stayman, and King Luscious.

A neighboring farm, Apple Wedge Packers & Cider, packs the Costons’ apples that are delivered to grocery store chains. “We’ve been neighbors for a long time,” Lola says, “and he does a very good job with our apples. He actually makes my cider for me too.”

The Costons also sell apples to canneries, with the majority going to Gerber.

David learned about growing apples from one of the best, his father. Owings says, “He was one of the most successful fruit growers in the county. Their orchard and cultural practices are some of the best.”

Apple House and gift shop

David built the Apple House in 1979. At that time, he and his dad sold apples retail and wholesale. David started the pick-your-own operation in the mid-1980s. A gift shop area was introduced around 1996 and has grown.

The retail area now consists of about 1,500 square feet of space, and David says the direct marketing aspect represents almost 20 percent of the total Coston Farm business.

Lola further developed the retail business after attending meetings of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, where she gained new insight into direct marketing and gift sales.

Lola and her staff work hard to make the gift shop unique. “We try to utilize private labeling,” she says, “and we sell apples to people that make canned goods for us.

“We try to use local products as much as possible,” she continues, “and we make our own baked apple pies. We try to carry a selection of fall and winter-type gift items, apple-related cookbooks, gadgets and things like that. As far as food goes, our fried apple pies are the most popular food item sold. We also sell pressed apple cider, made from Honeycrisp apples. It is sold by the cup, half gallon, gallon, as well as cold, frozen or hot.”

The Costons will also ship gift boxes and baskets. Field trips and group tours are offered by reservation.

Lola Coston learned from a direct marketing group that developing retail sales was a good way to help market Coston Farm’s apples, apple products and gift items.

Enjoyment versus profit

David has enjoyed growing apples with his family. However, profit margins are an issue. “The problem now is it seems like the profit margin is getting lower,” he says. “You put out a huge amount of money in outlays, and it’s a very small profit, really.”

Owings says, “To be a successful apple grower today, there are three things that are important. Growing quality, quality, quality! Along with quality, volume/production per acre plus growing the right varieties that buyers/consumers want is the key to any orchard’s success. These are the reasons I believe the Costons are successful today and will continue to be into the future.”

In the last 10 years, with local canneries and processing companies closing or relocating, Lola says apple growers in the region have downsized or concentrated more on direct marketing.

“So the need for large quantities of processing apples diminished,” David says. “Growers had to diversify and change.”

He says Henderson County apple production is still a competitive industry.

Negative publicity

Negative publicity can have a serious impact. In September 2011, Dr. Oz, a TV personality and physician, said apple juice samples contained elevated levels of arsenic, based on tests that “The Dr. Oz Show” had conducted. His claim was refuted by others in his profession and the apple industry, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The federal agency wrote two letters to the show, with the second one disputing the show’s claim. The show had submitted samples to the laboratory EMSL Analytical. For testing, investigators from the FDA collected apple juice samples from Nestle/Gerber and the samples from the same lot number in which EMSL Analytical had reported high levels of arsenic.

In its second letter, the FDA wrote, “Based on our investigation and testing, we are concerned that some of the results reported to you by EMSL Analytical may be erroneously high. The analysis of foods can pose a challenge to analytical laboratories and seemingly minor variations in sample treatment and analysis can have a significant effect on results. In short, the results of the tests cited above do not indicate that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic. The FDA reaffirms its belief, as stated in our September 9, 2011 letter, that it would be irresponsible and misleading for ‘The Dr. Oz Show’ to suggest that apple juice is unsafe based on tests for total arsenic.”

In September, David said he didn’t know what the impact would be yet on current and future generations of apple growers. He believed Dr. Oz’s statement could hurt growers, because people’s healthy perception of apples could change.

David refutes Dr. Oz’s claim. “There is some arsenic that’s naturally occurring in the soil and air,” he says. “The problem is imported [apple product] concentrate from China and other countries. That’s why it’s being found in it, most likely. We need to stop importing this food from other countries. We have very little control over that.”

The Coston Farm & Apple House serves customers with the assistance of (left to right) Holly Metcalf, Lola Coston, David Coston, Lisa Ball, Sandra Caldwell and Dale Caldwell.

The Costons advise people to be wise consumers by reading the label to determine if an apple product is made from fresh-pressed U.S. apples or produced from an imported concentrate.

“If people would just step back, look at the whole picture and listen to both sides of the argument – listen to the experts, doctors, who have come out with other opinions regarding this – it shouldn’t hurt us,” said David.

Based in Danville, Va., Rocky Womack has been writing for more than 25 years and is a contributing writer for numerous national and international publications.