The last of the Long Creek apple barons

There was a time back in the 1970s and early ’80s that Long Creek, S.C., had the East Coast apple market to itself for three weeks each year.

Photos by Ron Barnett.
Marvin Bryson in his orchard.

Apples from the mountains of North Carolina weren’t ready for market yet, and Long Creek, in the foothills of northwestern South Carolina, were the first to ripen.

The climate in these hills was cool enough to allow the fruit to set at just the right time and warm enough to give it a head start. Further south, it was a bit too warm to get a good crop of apples.

“When we first started to get into it, everybody was making money,” said Marvin Bryson of Bryson’s Orchards in Long Creek.

Then, in the late ’80s, along came CA (controlled atmosphere) storage.

The new techniques that Washington state apple growers began using at that time allowed them to flood the market with fruit that had been in storage since the previous year’s harvest, giving consumers a cheap alternative that effectively slammed shut the window of opportunity that had given Long Creek its edge.

In the years since then, the number of apple growers in this area, called South Carolina’s Golden Corner, declined from about 40 to about four. Those, like Bryson, who are still in the business are no longer shipping to grocery stores across the Eastern Seaboard, but offering their produce to tourists and locals who pass this way on their way to the famous whitewater Chattooga River or into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Still, it’s a way of life that the last of the Long Creek apple barons continue to embrace, with all its ups and downs, living at the mercy of Mother Nature’s whims and the consumers’ whimsy.

Bryson, for one, would have it no other way.

Bear killer

It was a bad year for the bears that brought Bryson and his family into this business.

Bags of freshly-picked red delicious apples, ready for sale at the Bryson Orchards store.

Originally from the Cashiers, N.C., area, just up the mountain from here, Bryson came to Long Creek after his dad, the late Richard Bryson, was hired by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in the early ’70s to shoot bears that had invaded the Oconee County orchards.

“My dad was a big bear hunter, and that year it was a bad year in the woods,” Bryson said. “They didn’t have anything to eat and they were coming into these orchards, just breaking them all to pieces.

“Dad found this (property) down in here and liked it.”

Tourists were beginning to take over around Cashiers, and the Brysons decided to head down the mountain to buy that property on Chattooga Ridge and go into the apple business.

Bryson was still in high school at the time, but helped his dad plant the orchard. His brother, Michael, came into the business when he finished school.

Eventually, the farm had up to 286 acres. Now, it’s down to about 25.

“Over the years, when my brother came in and all, we needed more orchard and we just kept leasing,” he said. “And apples would get more depressed and we’d get more orchard to try to make it. Finally, we just decided that wasn’t the way to go.”

In the heyday of the Long Creek apple industry, 90 percent of the growers, including Bryson, belonged to a co-op. They pooled their resources to build a packing plant to take advantage of the opportunity to quickly ship the first apples of the season each September.

“There was a good market before they got the CA storage,” Bryson recalled. “And once (Washington growers) got CA storage, about the time our apples came in they’d want to clean their coolers out of what they had stacked up to start next year’s crop. And so that depressed our markets.”

By the time the Brysons’ orchard was producing well, the market had begun to dry up. Through the late 1980s and into the ’90s, the Long Creek orchards closed, one by one.

One of the biggest growers, an independent operation called Round Mountain Orchard, held on until its owner, Hercial Moore, died, and his sons went into the bottled water business.

“Now, a lot of these growers was old timers, and they have passed away,” Bryson said. “The kids had other interests so the farm just went.

“The real estate market is booming in the mountains here and a lot of people would rather just sell their land and live off the real estate profits than they had try to work it.”

New approach

Bryson decided to take a different tact in the business. He wasn’t about to give up his orchard, but he knew he couldn’t make a living with a seasonal roadside market.

He had already worked construction for Duke Power Co. while his dad took care of the day-to-day operations of the orchard. Now, he works a construction job for Clemson University and keeps the apple business going as a sideline. He plans to spend more time at the orchard when he retires.

“The public’s getting more aware of it every year, that they can come out to the orchards and get good fresh fruit. It’s not been in any kind of controlled temperatures and it’s better. It tastes better.”

He puts his fruit in coolers eventually, but not for long periods of times like western growers do.

“We can pick them more mature, because they’re going to be on the roadside, than we can if you’re trying to ship it,” he explained. “Because on shipping it, if it’s real mature it’ll break down before it gets to its destination and goes bad.”

Red and Golden Delicious are his bread and butter, but Bryson grows about 15 other varieties as well. Galas and Golden Supreme come in first, about the same time as peaches—Bryson also grows a few peaches.

Reds and Goldens come in next and will continue ripening for the remainder of the season. Then come Winesaps, another big seller, and Romes, and finally Arkansas Black, Fuji and Granny Smith.

Weather woes

The weather has been anything but cooperative this year for Bryson’s Orchards. A spring freeze killed 90 percent of the crop and the continuing drought made for smaller, and Bryson says not as pretty, although sweeter, fruit.

“The public likes big apples, but you can’t produce what you can’t produce,” Bryson said.

On the bright side, the drier weather meant less trouble with diseases, he said.

Because of the shortage of apples, Bryson had to cut out his U-pick operation this year. He started allowing buyers to pick their own about 20 years ago and has found it a good draw for business, but not economically feasible when the crop is short.

“There’s a lot of waste in it,” he explained. “But the reason we started the U-pick was because the commercial end was depressed, and it was a way of getting rid of a few apples, and we didn’t care if there was some wasted.”

He doesn’t mind visitors munching on an apple or two while they’re picking. The problem is the way people pick.

“They’ll pick one and three will fall off if they don’t pick it right,” he said. “Then, if they pick it and they don’t like it, it’s a little bit small, they’ll throw it down.”

The freeze not only wiped out most of this year’s crop, but it forced some of the trees to prematurely start producing spindly fruit from buds that should have been next year’s apples.

“That bud should have stayed dormant until next year,” Bryson said, pointing at a tiny growth on one of his trees that he said is an apple. “It’s getting more nutrients than it needs, and it has pushed that bud out and made it bloom this year, late. That should have been next year’s apple.”

That means next year’s crop could be light, he said.

The temperature seems to be warmer than it used to be, Bryson said, which naturally has a big impact on production.

“Now, as the climate’s warming, our season is moving out and getting later,” he said. “Used to be, by the end of October we was totally out of apples or had better be out of apples because it would get cold and bad and all. Now we go to Thanksgiving, and it’s shirtsleeve weather.”

It makes it difficult to know when the various varieties are going to ripen, though.

“Apples vary depending on the weather, when they actually get mature,” Bryson said. “You can set a date—which we generally try to—but Mother Nature does it the way she wants it done.”

Still, you can pretty much count on getting better quality fruit at cheaper prices at Bryson’s roadside market than you can in the grocery stores, he said.

“The difference is you cut out the handling, the truckers and the grocery store’s profits,” he explained. Plus, the fruit is fresher and riper.

Bryson handles the orchard by himself, mainly, with some part-time help during picking season. Even still, he tries to keep it in the family.

His wife Gail and sister-in-law Peggy help out in the store, where they also sell jams and jellies and other locally produced items. His brother, Michael, continues to help with the packing.

A neighbor and more experienced grower, Coyt Wilbanks, has been a big help through the years, and the last of the Long Creek growers continue to stick together.

Bryson acknowledges that being in the apple business means a lot of hard work for very little profit.

So why keep doing it?

“It gets in your blood,” he quipped.

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories. He may be contacted at rbarnett99@yahoo.com.