Organic apples at Windy Ridge

 Windy Ridge Farm is the first certified organic apple orchard in North Carolina and the largest producer of organic apples on the entire East Coast.
The farm produces more than 15 types of organic apples, including new and heirloom varieties. There are now also organic peaches, nectarines and mixed vegetables. Windy Ridge also offers an organic apple cider.
Anthony Owens, owner of Windy Ridge, says the cost per acre to produce apples organically on his farm is four times higher than conventional production. But, the organic crop is still more profitable because of the premium price at markets. Owens has also begun working with a local organic wine maker. The small and irregular fruits will be used to make a sweet, apple dessert wine targeted for high-end and specialty retailers.
Owens grew up helping his uncle on the 40-acre orchard his granddad planted in the 1950s. He went away to college for a degree in psychology and thought of moving to the city, but then returned to the family farm in the late 1990s to head the operation.
Owens delivers to coop grocers and health food chains primarily in Hendersonville, Asheville and Greenville, S.C.
In 2006, Windy Ridge Orchard atop Sugarloaf Mountain was featured in Southern Living magazine. The magazine article was entitled “Unbelievable apples.”
“Southern Living heard about what we are doing,” Owens said. “They are intrigued with the whole concept of the organic movement.”
“When people told Anthony Owens he could never make organic apple farming work in North Carolina, he did it anyway,” writer Nick Patterson states in the article.
The fastest growing sector in United States agriculture is organic fruits and vegetables, according to Fruit Growers Magazine.
Organic fruits and vegetables are produced without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bio engineering or ionizing radiation.
Before a product can be labeled certified organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic and state organic standards.
In addition to selling organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, Owens also sells heirloom apple varieties grown organically.
Windy Ridge organic products can be found at Earth Fare Markets and Whole Foods Markets.
The story in Southern Living also praises all the area’s apples.
“Windy Ridge Farms grows organic apples in a part of the state known for incredible apple production,” states the writer.
Customers can find jugs of Windy Ridge organic apple cider at the Hendersonville Food Co-op, Earth Fair and Fresh Market.
Supplies of organic apple cider arrive from the West Coast, but Owens’ cider is the only organic apple cider made from Henderson County apples.
“There’s not a big profit,” he said. “There is so much competition from the West Coast, then add the cost of labor and growing the apples. This is to keep our name out there and is a service to our customers.”
Owens hauled the apples by truck to the Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Enka, where forklifts carry the apples onto a table for grading.
The apples are grinded into a pulp and enter the “Squeezebox,” where the juice is squeezed out. The juice is filtered to a holding tank, then 375 gallons at a time enter the pasteurizer.
“We pasteurize 16.2 seconds, at 163 degrees,” Owens said. “The FDA only requires 6.2 seconds. We’re killing all the bacteria with the extra holding.”
The cider travels through steel tubes into a holding tank in another room, where Owens and family members fill the jugs with cider. Other family members outside the room put labels on the jugs.
Windy Ridge Farms is the only commercial apple orchard in the Southeast producing USDA certified organic apples.
It costs Owens twice as much for the chemicals required to grow organic apples. Chemicals to grow his conventional apples cost half as much.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project are both promoting local agriculture. Officials said numerous surveys demonstrate the consumer prefers to buy locally grown food. ASAP works with farmers throughout the region to develop alternative crops and markets.
“To get something that came off the tree just a day or week before is phenomenal,” said a produce buyer with Earth Fare in Asheville.
Carolina Organic Growers helped Owens distribute his organic apples throughout North Carolina.
“Earth Fare was a big buyer along with French Broad Food Co-op,” he said. “Hendersonville Food Co-op was also a big supporter.”
Owens and other family members do all the labor and use an organic spray program every five to seven days. The sprayer is cleaned thoroughly after each use. The water source must also be clean and contain no chlorine. One tractor and sprayer are used only on the organic fruits and vegetables.
The fruit and vegetables are packed in new containers and the pickers must wear gloves when picking the fruits and vegetables.
“No one handles the fruit without gloves and a special suit,” Owens said. “And we go in the field as little as possible.”
Fog and high humidity are the major culprit of disease, especially with organic apples. Moisture causes disease and rot.
Owens said medium- to high-density orchards are more suitable for organic production because the spray can penetrate the trees better.
Insects are also a big problem in growing organic apples. Each insect and each disease has to be treated specifically.
Another local apple grower, Joel Reed of Point Look-out Farms on Sugarloaf Mountain, set up a grading machine for himself and Owens to use on their apples.
Owens doesn’t store apples. He sells out as he harvests. His apples, bearing the Windy Ridge Organics name, appear in stores “from Vermont to Miami.”

In addition to about 100 acres and 18 varieties of apples, he grows watermelons, tomatoes and other vegetables organically.
“It’s by far easier to grow vegetables organically than it is apples,” he said. “To grow organic fruit, you need to be a scientist and a farmer.”
Owens sells fresh-market apples in tray packs, which are packed on the farm. Apples that don’t meet this first level of quality go for peeling, slicing or pressing into juice for apple cider. Processors such as Mott’s and Beechnut also buy his organic apples. There is a large market for organic baby food.