Pomology volunteers tend county’s apple variety block
Boomer, an English black Labrador, flopped down between two rows of apple trees in an orchard in Edneyville one hot August morning. A juicy, red apple Boomer scavenged and carried to his shady spot rolled on the ground as he set to work devouring his prize.
Boomer’s human, Marvin Owings Jr., stood nearby and pointed to the dog. With a laugh, he acknowledged that his buddy knows how to sniff out a good apple.
Luckily for apple farmers in Henderson County, Ownings has a more scientific and systematic method than a dog’s snout to determine which apples to grow in their orchards.
Owings and a team of volunteers and students of pomology – the science of growing fruit – work year-round to maintain a variety block of apple trees in the orchard and carefully document the characteristics of each.
Data collected from the variety block gives farmers valuable information about the trees and the fruit they produce. The information helps growers decide which apples work best for their needs — whether they operate U-pick orchards, grow apples for cider or sell on the commercial market.
“It’s a research block. We are evaluating over 150 apple varieties,” said Owings, who retired a few years ago as director of Henderson County’s Cooperative Extension office. “If growers are interested in buying and growing these, they can come and look at what is grown here.”
QR code provides instant analysis
Information collected on each variety includes data on tree planting, tree training, harvesting and maturity as well as bloom dates. The team checks fruit from each tree for pressure, sugar levels and weight and size once harvesting begins. Later in the season, the team also puts apples from each tree in cold storage to determine the ability of each variety to withstand storage in coolers.
The information is available through QR codes found on each tree, giving anyone with a smart phone a detailed report. The QR code attached to a Premier Honeycrisp tree in the orchard shows the year it was planted, its root stock and its status as healthy. It also shows pre-harvest and post-harvest data for the tree and includes the fruits’ pressure levels, sugar levels, starch levels and seed color going back as far as 2019. Bloom dates and other information on the tree is also shown.
“It helps farmers know what to expect from that particular variety,” Owings said.
Some varieties proved over the years to be successes while others ended up susceptible to blight. One variety produced beautiful fruit but failed the taste test, Owings said.
Information from the variety block is also shared with nurseries that sell apple trees to growers in Western North Carolina and in other parts of the country.
“What grows well in Western North Carolina might not grow well in Michigan or New York,” Owings said.
‘Learning how it gets to the grocery store’
The Henderson County Apple Variety Block is made possible through a cooperative effort by Henderson County Cooperative Extension, the Henderson County Extension Master Pomologists and the Blue Ridge Apple Growers.
Owings started the variety block program back in 1985 at a different location in response to requests from apple growers looking for more information on the apples they wanted to grow.
He began the variety block and the master pomologist program on a model similar to the master gardener program that trains gardeners under the guidance and direction of extension agents.
“I knew how effective the master gardener program was,” Owings said. “It had to be a group effort. It’s just a great group of folks who want to give back to the community and growers. We have fun out here every Tuesday.”
Between 8 a.m. and noon each Tuesday volunteers come to the orchard ready to care for and study the apple trees.
Some who come out are part of the master pomology program while others are just volunteers who enjoy being outdoors and working in the fruit trees.
Paul Carroll, a gardener at the Sierra Nevada facility in Henderson County, worked checking the sugar levels of apple slices on a recent Tuesday at the variety block.
He said he enrolled in the master pomology program to help him learn how to best care for the apple trees the business planted four years ago. Sierra Nevada plans to eventually use fruit from the trees for either beer or cider.
“I’m finishing my field hours,” Carroll said. “I’m trying to learn their technique. It’s a work in progress.”
Steven Donahue of Buncombe County picked apples one Tuesday. He said he volunteers with the variety block as a way to enjoy nature.
“It’s fresh air. It’s learning about nature and learning about how it gets to the grocery store,” he said. “So much goes into it. They are working all year.”
Ken Olson, who described himself as the group’s longest serving volunteer, said he took the pomology course in 2013 and now helps other volunteers get familiar with work around the orchard.
They begin in February with pruning before counting blossoms in March and April. Thinning happens later in the spring. Summer includes the work testing fruit before bags of apples are prepared and put in cold storage for more testing later in the year.
For their efforts, the volunteers and Boomer receive free apples to enjoy once they are ready to harvest.
Owings said people who come out on Tuesdays also get something deeper for their efforts.
“People want to give back by volunteering their time and effort on Tuesday mornings,” he said. “We are looking for folks who want to give back to the community as volunteers and who want to be outdoors.”
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Owings plans begin the next master pomology class in February. The college-level, no-credit course is offered over seven weeks through the Henderson County Cooperative Extension. For more information, call the Henderson County Extension office at 828-697-4891 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.