The Quest for NC Apples

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When I started researching apple production in North Carolina, I wasn’t sure what aspect would catch my attention for the weekly update. I expected the subject to fall somewhere in between production numbers and why apples are grown where they’re grown. Then someone pointed out that you never see North Carolina apples in the store. Why doesn’t one see NC apples in the store? I decided this was the line of inquiry to follow.

My great grandparents had an apple orchard when I was growing up, so I never questioned the fact that North Carolina produces apples. Maybe we don’t produce as many apples as I assumed. It turns out NC is in the top ten states for apple production, usually falling around 7th . Of course, if the US doesn’t produce that many apples or almost all come from one state, then seventh place may not be that many. I started digging through the first of many documents, charts, and Excel files to find some actual numbers. In 2010, North Carolina actually produced around 134 million pounds of apples . So a lack of apples shouldn’t be the reason for their absence in box stores.

Perhaps the reasons are geographic. If the area for apples is clustered, they may not get distributed evenly throughout the state. Apple production in the state clusters into five major areas: Henderson, Haywood, Mt. Mitchel, Northwest, and South Mountain areas . The areas aren’t massively spread out, but the spread is big enough and transportation accessible enough that geography shouldn’t be a problem. The reason for the clusters actually dates back as early as the 19th century. Apples have been grown in thermal belt areas of North Carolina since pioneers in the 1800’s discovered that growing apples on hill slopes instead on mountaintops or the bottom of valleys made for a longer growing season . In southwestern NC, there is an average rainfall of over ninety inches (versus an average of forty to fifty-five inches east of the mountains) because a barrier formed by the mountains forces moist, southerly winds over it . Overall, the thermal belts make an excellent place to grow apples.

So if North Carolina has plenty of apples and geography doesn’t prevent them from being moved around, what’s the problem? Poking through some more USDA spreadsheets, I found that in 2010, 50.7 million pounds of NC apples were used for canning. That’s a decent chunk. Excel file revealed that an additional 21 million pounds get turned into juice or cider. So, around 72.1 million pounds of the 134 mil don’t even reach the final consumer as a whole apple (most of this comes to you in the form of juice or apple sauce). What about the 40-ish percent that do reach the last step of their journey still intact? One-fourth of US apples are exported to other countries , and since a breakdown by state isn’t readily available, let’s just use the average. So 30% of 134 million pounds equals a lot of apples still unaccounted for (around 40.2 million lbs.).

The most commonly grown apples fall into one of four types, but there are actually over forty other types grown in the state; however, these are almost exclusively found in roadside stands . Any others will generally be found at the farmer’s market. That’s the ‘where’ of finding North Carolina apples, and the ‘why’ has been answered to a certain numerical degree, but for the bigger ‘why’ one can’t find NC apples in stores, I don’t have an exact answer. With the apple production in North Carolina being spread over around three hundred orchards, maybe it’s easier for stores to import apples instead of dealing with multiple suppliers. Stores may think apples sound more exotic if they come from places that are usually cold. Or perhaps history plays a role. Thinking on the roadside stands and stories of how my great grandfather used to get on his bike and peddle apples, maybe NC likes to keep things old school. Or maybe North Carolina likes to keep its local apples truly local.

Carolina apples may not be as convenient to find as imports in the store, but NC apples are worth looking for. The weather in North Carolina’s apple growing regions is ideal for producing apples with a great combination of crispness, juiciness, and sweetness. Finding North Carolina apples may not always be easy, but like the overlooks and hiking trails in the land where they grow, a bit of effort pays off.

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