Extension-trained volunteers assist local apple industry

When Jean Marie Saltz decided to take over her family’s sixth-generation apple orchard in Henderson County, she saw it as a way to provide local people with fresh local produce while allowing herself to get back to something she had loved since childhood – being outdoors, surrounded by delicious Fujis, Ginger Golds and Galas.

The only problem was that her father and grandfather, who’d guided the farming operation for decades, had passed away. Who, she wondered, could she turn to for answers to all her questions about farming?

Saltz was a registered nurse when she heard about a North Carolina Cooperative Extension program offered nowhere else in the country: the Master Pomology Volunteer Program. Through a $75 course, she could spend 30 hours learning about fruit trees from County Extension Director Marvin Owings and other experts. She would also receive a comprehensive book with science-based information on growing quality fruit. In return, she’d have to spend at least 40 volunteer hours at a two-acre research orchard.

“I saw a newspaper article about the program, and I said, ‘I’m signing up. Life is all about learning something, and if you don’t learn something different every day, then what’s the point?’” Saltz recalls.

Scores of others had gone before Saltz in completing the Master Pomology program, which Owings started in 1986 and conducts every three or four years. These volunteers’ contributions at the orchard have benefited an industry worth between $24 million and $30 million to the county each year, Owings says. In 2014 alone, the volunteers contributed more than 1,360 hours of work, valued at nearly $28,000.

The test orchard, or variety block, represents more than 100 varieties of apples, peaches and nectarines. When Owings first became a horticultural agent in Henderson County in 1985, apple growers convinced him of the need for such an evaluation site where new and old varieties could be tracked under local growing conditions. He knew he’d need help with the program, and he looked to Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteer program for inspiration.

“The course has proven to be very beneficial to the participants, to the Extension Service, and to the commercial apple industry of Henderson County,” Owings says. “The results of our variety block findings are published in the local apple production newsletter, and about 92 percent of growers surveyed said they found the results very useful in helping them decide which new varieties to plant.”

The Master Pomologists track all major, and even seemingly minor, occasions in the test orchard – from when each tree is planted to when it begins to bloom, when and how much fruit the trees bear and how well the fruit does when it’s stored.

Bill Metts pruning an apple tree, with Ken Olson
Bill Metts (left) and Ken Olson volunteered in the Master Pomology Program by working at the research orchard.

Volunteer Bill Metts puts it this way: “Our most important product out of here is data. We keep track of everything.”

Not only do the volunteers follow the trees’ lives and productivity, they also note the trees’ susceptibility to diseases and insects. They prune and train the trees, and they follow tedious procedures to cross breed varieties, in hopes that the offspring will be superior to the parents. And, said volunteer Ken Olson, they conduct postharvest tests to determine the pH, sugar and starch content of the fruit, plus they rate its taste, appearance and storage ability.

And each Labor Day weekend, the volunteers bring their favorites to the three-day North Carolina Apple Festival to have thousands of participants evaluate them.

The festival results, along with the volunteers’ findings in the orchard, influence growers’ decisions about which varieties they grow, Owings explained. For example, he expects growers to begin showing more interest in Senshu, whose taste 2014 festival-goers preferred by a 10-to-1 margin over Honey Crisp, the perennial favorite that also happens to be one of the most difficult varieties to grow.

While helping the industry is a primary goal for the Master Pomology program, the volunteers have varied motivations for participating. Some simply enjoy spending time outside, learning and serving others. Others participate because they want to better enjoy fruit trees they have on their property. Bill Metts started with that intention but became so hooked that he has continued volunteering for 15 years, even though he no longer has fruit trees. He also has spread what he’s learned to others by establishing a small orchard of apples, peaches, plums and cherries for children at a local orphanage.

Still others, such as Saltz and Trey Enloe, have changed careers to farming and want to learn state-of-the-art production methods. Like Saltz, Enloe had grown up in a family that had long been involved in the apple industry. But he decided to try something new when he went to NC State University for college, majoring in engineering. He worked in that field for seven years, until his grandfather passed away in 2013.

“I was on the fence about what I wanted to do. I didn’t really enjoy a cubicle and all that stuff, so I figured I’d give farming a shot,” Enloe says.

When he told people that he planned to take the pomology course, some discouraged him. “A lot of people said, ‘You are wasting your time. You know all that stuff,’” he says. “But that hasn’t been the case at all.”

Enloe, who serves as president of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association and on the board of the state apple association, says his family farm has been “kind of traditional”: “We didn’t use a lot of plant growth regulators and things like that – not near to the extent you could use some. But here, I’m learning about the science behind what they affect and have been able to see the advantages of some and would stay away from others. And I’ve been successful at grafting.

“So, yes, I’ve definitely taken things away from the class that are important to our farm. It’s all about efficiency, and if I can learn ways to save a dollar here or there,” he adds, “then it’s worth it.” Saltz agrees. “It’s been a good experience all around. It has been nice coming out here and seeing how they recommend doing things today versus how my granddaddy did it,” she says. “The most important thing I learned is to respect the tree, how to take care of the tree, and that it’s OK to prune to get new growth coming in. I grow fruit, not wood.”

– Dee Shore