Kenny Barnwell, one of Henderson County’s apple producers and farmers, works tirelessly on behalf of the apple growers and farmers in Henderson County.
He was named Grower of the Year in 2001 at the Southeastern Apple Growers Meeting. In 2007, he was president of the N.C. Apple Growers Association. He is involved in numerous boards and committees promoting apple growers and farmers in North Carolina.
Barnwell, a Greensboro College graduate, bought 12 orchard acres in 1983 and now manages more than 200 acres of owned and leased land. He is a past president of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers.
Among the first to adopt new practices, Barnwell has replaced conventional trees on most of his acreage, replanting with semi-dwarf varieties for improved fruit and more efficient cultivation. He is a partner in Ridgeview Apple Packers near Edneyville.
In 2009, he spoke before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee. During this speech he addressed several issues related to the history of the apple industry in Henderson County.
Here are some excerpts:
“When I returned to the family operation after I graduated from Greensboro College in 1980, the apple industry in Henderson County was a thriving industry. At that time there were 33 packing operations and almost 10,000 acres of apple orchard. Today there are only four packing operations and about 5,500 acres of apple orchards.
“These numbers, however, do not accurately reflect the present condition of the industry. In the late 1980s the apple market in Henderson County began to disappear. This change was brought about by the use of controlled atmosphere storage in Washington state. This change enabled the growers in Washington state to market apples year round, which removed the window when North Carolina had been marketing most of its apples, a time that occurred before other apples were available for the new crop.
“With the loss of this market advantage and the depressed prices of early apple production, many growers went out of business or reduced their acreage. Most of the rest of the growers then began to rely more heavily on processing great apple production. The processing apple market was a way for growers to balance their apple production mix. Growers produced less great apples, but made up the difference by producing more processing fruit.
“This business model worked until the juice processing plant in Mountain Home and the Gerber processing plant in Ashville, and the National Fruit Processing Plant in Lincolnton all closed within about a year and a half of each other.
“As a result, growing apples in Henderson County in the 1990s was a very challenging undertaking. The loss of markets and the boom on real estate put a lot of pressure on many growers to make hard decisions about what they were going to do for the future.
“At this time many new varieties of apples were shown to work very well in the climate in Henderson County. Most of the other research was done at the Mountain Research Station in Fletcher, North Carolina. This research station is operated by N.C. State, A&T, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“This new production is now coming in full production and has opened many new markets for our apples. The local grown movement has been important in our area because we are very near large markets, Atlanta, Charlotte, and all of Florida.
“The Farm Bill also provided much needed funding for research and mechanical harvesting of apples. With new methods of harvest, we would be less dependent on migrant labor.
“My own route in the apple industry has followed a changing course. When I returned to the farm, I worked for my uncle for nine years in the 1980s and then went into business for myself. I bought an apple orchard in 1983, and then rented additional acreage in 1989 and became a full-time farmer. Since then I have purchased part of a packing house where we no longer pack apples. We have changed from older varieties and large trees to almost all new varieties and dwarf trees.
“In that time I also worked as a federal crop insurance adjuster and have served on most of the agricultural committees that you can serve on in Henderson County and in North Carolina. The apple industry in Henderson County is now strong and doing very well. However, the industry is still very fragile and faces many challenges. Some of these challenges are the increased cost of production, the new regulations in food safety, and the questions about availability of enough labor to harvest the crop.”
Some problems relate to world trade.
Food imported into the United States does not have to meet safety and environmental guidelines that farmers must meet in the United States. This has been an issue with apple growers, who make no profit on juice apples and get little profit from processing apples since China began importing apples into the United States.
Most juice apples and processing apples, which go into canned products, are now bought from China.
About 15 years ago, China grew fewer apples than the United States. By 2007, it grew five times as many, almost half of all apples worldwide.
There are 52 Chinese insects and diseases of concern to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Of equal concern are the pesticides and fungicides that China uses to control those insects and diseases, crop protectorates that American apple growers are not allowed to use. There are also reports of human waste in Chinese orchards, say apple growers and officials representing the apple industry.
“What if that had been baby food instead of pet food?” asked Barnwell, referring to a pet food contaminant that caused the deaths of cats and dogs in the United States.
Today, more than half of all imported concentrate comes from China.
Consumers should be reading labels carefully, especially related to apple juice.
A label stating 100 percent juice does not mean that juice is from American apples.
The only way the American consumer is assured of buying apple juice made from American apples is to buy juice labeled “not from concentrate.”