131 Scovell Hall
University of Kentucky
By Carol Lea Spence
Photographs by Stephen Patton
“That’s a niche apple,” said Don Haney, ’70, who owns Appledale with his brother Mark. “You could never ship that apple, because it’s so thin-skinned. You look at it, and it’ll bruise.”
Let Washington, Oregon, Michigan, and New York, major wholesale shippers of apples, battle over which lays claim to the title Apple Capital of the World. We’ve got a different business model in Kentucky.
“I don’t think anybody would encourage anyone to do wholesale,” Haney said. “The market window is too narrow; for Kentucky apples it would be two weeks, three weeks at the most, because once Michigan apples come in, they blow you out of the water.”
In Kentucky, most producers are selling their crops retail and filling the niche market. Want to buy that early-season Lodi? A sweet Sansa, a sprightly Liberty, a juicy Pink Lady? Head out to the farm.
The Haneys have about 50 acres in tree fruit production, which include 40 varieties of apples that will ripen between June and October. Of those, you would be unable to buy at least a dozen varieties anywhere else except an orchard. Which is good, because when sold so close to home, apples can ripen on the tree rather than in a cooler, developing a rich, full flavor that brings customers to the farms in droves.
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture's census, Kentucky has about 1,200 acres in apples, 964 of those with trees of bearing age.
“Fruit is one of the tougher things you can grow. It’s a very rewarding crop, but it’s not for everybody,” said John Strang, UKAg fruit and vegetable specialist. “Once you get into it, the economics are pretty good, but it’s six years to break even. That’s why we don’t have a lot of new people getting into orchards.”
Billy and Kathy Reid and their adult children, famous for their hugely popular fall festival, are the fourth and fifth generations working Reid’s Orchard, which was established 140 years ago. Don and Mark Haney have been farming their family holdings for more than 40 years, continuing a fruit business begun in the late 1800s. Matt and Amanda Gajdzik, brand new in the business, are the exception that proves the rule.
The Gajdziks planted 12 of their 170 acres in Shelby County in fruit trees, including 2,700 dwarf apple trees in 15 varieties. They call it Mulberry Orchard.
“We wanted something that produces enough income to support a family,” Matt Gajdzik said. “We looked for something with the same kind of income per acre as tobacco.”
It takes a lot of acres of corn and soybeans to support a family. On the other hand, tobacco producers could devote a small part of their farms to the crop and make a good income.
“Same thing with fruit, I feel,” Matt said. “You don’t have to have thousands of acres of it to make a living.”
Dwarf apple trees benefit from a trellis for support; growers need a support network of their own. When Gajdzik, ’04, and his wife Amanda, ’04, were planning their orchard in Shelby County, they sought advice from other orchard owners and UKAg specialists.
Losing trees. Losing fruit. Loss is part of a fruit producer’s life.
“In 2012, we had a spring freeze that really affected fruit production. In ’07 we lost a crop. In ’86, we lost a crop.” Haney ticked off on his fingers some of the really memorable bad years.
The Gajdziks, in their short time in the business, have already met with nature’s idiosyncrasies. They weathered the severe spring freeze of 2012 without a lot of damage, but before they could relax, a hailstorm dented just about every apple they had.
This past summer was rainier than apples prefer, which was in direct opposition to the summer before when extreme heat shut the trees down. Photosynthesis is responsible for adding sugar to the fruit, but another process affects the sugar, too. Trees breathe.
“The higher the temperature, the faster that respiration process, and the faster they burn the sugars up. So when that temperature gets up to be 90 or 95, that tree’s just holding its own. Nothing’s going on,” Strang said.
Temperature not only affects respiration, sugar production, and fruit color, it is an important factor in insect and weed pressure.
Reid’s Orchard in Daviess County was the first orchard in the state to participate in the College’s integrated pest management research program for apples.
“IPM really helped us understand when the disease is going to be there and also when the insect eggs are going to hatch,” Reid said. “So instead of spraying every 10 days, we wait until a certain condition happens, and that’s when we do it. It’s all about timing.”