Features

Kentucky is Apple-icious

By Carol Lea Spence
Photographs by Stephen Patton



Tart and bright green, little Lodi tantalizes customers from the shelves of Haney’s Appledale Farm Market in Nancy. They should call it the Kissing Apple, ‘cause the June apple will put a pucker on your lips if you eat it raw. Most people buy it for cooking. It adds zing to a pie. Don’t look for it in a grocery, though, only on the farm.

“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.

Don Haney examines an apple tree during the spring bloom. He and his brother
Mark plant dwarf trees—as do many growers—because they can get up to 300 trees to
the acre, they don't have to use a ladder to pick the fruit, and the trees come into production
a lot earlier. He said the only downside is dwarf trees don't live as long as full-sized.





Big Potential, Many Challenges

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.”

Three generations of Reids farm together, with the fourth waiting in the wings. (front) John Reid, Billy and Kathy Reid, Katie holding Bella
(back) Brad, Valerie and Mark with Paisley


A Networking Trellis

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.

Three generations of Reids farm together, with the fourth waiting in the wings. (front) John Reid, Billy and Kathy Reid, Katie holding Bella (back) Brad, Valerie and Mark with Paisley

"The apples we grow now have been selected from hundreds of thousands of varieties for
good qualities." — John Strang



“We visited a lot of orchards in the state; all of them opened their doors to us and took us around their orchards,” Matt Gajdzik said. “Everybody grew Red Delicious, Golden Delicious. There were a lot of duplicates, so that’s how we developed our core—you saw what everybody was growing and thought, well, that must be something.”

There are so few growers in the state that most of them don’t compete directly. They gather at events such as the Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Conference in January and during on-site spring orchard meetings where UKAg specialists work with growers on integrated pest management and other problems.

“A roundtable discussion is a big part of that, where the growers can get their questions answered,” Strang said.

Strang, horticulture specialist Shawn Wright, and Daniel Becker, extension associate for vegetables and fruit, often make farm visits to share information with growers. “Of course we cooperate very closely with Ric Bessin in Entomology and Nicole Ward Gauthier in Plant Pathology who have fruit responsibilities,” Strang said. “It's a nice group to work with.”

Even if their advice isn’t always taken.

Haney was showing off his orchard when he stopped and pointed at two rows of Honeycrisps.

“I didn’t listen to Dr. Strang. We were encouraged not to plant Honeycrisps, but I wouldn’t listen to him. I thought, I can do that. I can grow anything. Well, I can’t,” he said, chuckling.

It's a bit too far south for the northern tier apple—too much heat. “By the time they get ripe, you start to get rot in them,” Haney said.

Live and learn.



Apple trees are not grown from seed, but propagated by budding or grafting onto rootstocks, which determine a multitude of properties, from tree size to disease resistance. It can take about 20 years to evaluate a rootstock.

Apple trees are not grown from seed, but propagated by budding or grafting onto rootstocks,
which determine a multitude of properties, from tree size to disease resistance. It can take
about 20 years to evaluate a rootstock.



If It Isn’t One Thing,
It’s Another

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.”



Katie Reid displays some of the many products available at her family's on-farm market, The Apple House. As part of a diversified farm, the Reids grow 18 varieties of apples on 22 acres.

Katie Reid displays some of the many products available at her family's on-farm market,
The Apple House. As part of a diversified farm, the Reids grow 18 varieties of apples on 22 acres.





Seeking Perfection

Ask a farmer what they consider to be the perfect apple and you’ll get a dozen different ideas. It has to taste good. It has to have a good shape and good color. It’s got to store well. It’s got to hang on the tree and not drop off. It should have insect and disease resistance. A tree that grows straight up is not as good as one that opens up and lets in sunlight and spray material. Oh, and a tree that doesn’t require a lot of pruning would be nice, too.

Ask consumers what they want in an apple. They’d like it to be tart. Or sweet. They want the juice to run down their chins. Or not so much. Some want a softer apple, some want a crisp one. And some want one that won’t turn to mush when it’s cooked.

There’s a lot riding on that simple fruit. There's a lot riding on our growers.