A cancelled festival prompts crop diversification — and a renewed zeal for local
About 25 years ago, Beth Laughter and her sister-in-law Kim Hill of Circle L Farms shook Hendersonville’s downtown with a card table and electric frying pan. At that year’s North Carolina Apple Festival, folks ate their fried apple pies — filled with applesauce and coated in sugar, just like the ones made by family matriarch Granny Laughter — quicker than the women could say “turnover.” The seasonal pastries are now part legend, part Labor Day staple.
But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, times are changing. In a statement released on June 16, festival organizers announced that the 74th North Carolina Apple Festival would exclude the two central public events: the King Apple Parade and the weekend-long street fair.
The festival’s website reads: “Due to our street layout, we are not able to control the number of attendees, which would allow for social distancing. This decision was made after speaking with local leaders in government and in the health field. We believe that in the best interest of the future of the festival, the apple industry, and our community not to hold these events.”
For Circle L Farm, change begets change. And this year, a new fruit is ripe for picking: Asian pears.
“They are really sweet and crispy,” says Beth, who has grown with her husband, David Laughter, since 1997. “The texture is more akin to an apple.”
Driving by the Laughters’ 55-acre plot, an untrained eye would see nothing more than apples. Henderson County is apple country, after all. But nearly 80 percent of the farm’s crops are now Asian pears. A larger, crunchier relative of the European pear, Asian pears come in different varieties like the hardy Olympic Giant and the Reddy Robin, an aesthetically pleasing fruit with a light pink blush.
Besides a few pests — stinkbugs being one — Asian pears grow and store just like apples. “They do come in a little earlier, though,” David notes.
On Labor Day Weekend, the Laughters will launch Pilot Mountain Pears, a pick-your-own facility designed to allow families to safely enjoy the holiday weekend. Though the Laughter family has grown pears for nearly a decade, even taking the fruits to market as far as Raleigh and Greensboro, this will be their first go at a pick-your-own approach.
“I’ve had people drive by my house, knock on the door, and ask to pick,” says Beth. This year seemed as good as any to let customers do just that.
Lindsey Butler, owner of Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock, is approaching the upcoming season with a similar ingenuity. Though much of the 70-acre orchard is still designated for apple growing, Sky Top is harboring a sweet and tangy secret: cherries.
“We’ve kept it quiet because demand often exceeds supply,” says Butler. “And cherries aren’t always a sure thing.”
Dubbed “nature’s candy,” cherries are a bit finicky to grow and typically ripen in late June and early July. For years, a handful of Sky Top customers have purchased frozen, pitted sour cherries, mostly of the Montmorency variety. But this fall, Butler will be diving headfirst into cherry hand pies, a trickier endeavor than, say, the ever-popular apple-cider doughnuts.
“Cherry filling can’t be too thick or too thin,” she notes. “But I’ve been experimenting, and I think I have it down.”
These value-added models are, well, invaluable, says David Nicholson, executive director of the Apple Festival.
“The majority of growers are changing how they do things this year because they must — this is their livelihood,” Nicholson says. “Just this weekend, I bought apple donuts from a local farm and the owners were masked and gloved up. They are going to make it work.”
In light of there being no street market, Nicholson and staff are providing apple farmers with marketing support through the festival’s Facebook page, to help shore up their individual smaller events and encourage the purchasing of local fruit. Though he’s hopeful about upcoming apple sales in spite of COVID-19, many are still grappling with the loss of tradition.
“It’s like the biggest family reunion. Family from all over come up,” David says of the festival. “I will surely miss it.”
But one tradition will not be lost. Beth promises that Circle L Farms will still be frying apple pies filled with apple sauce and coated in sugar, just like Granny Laughter’s.
Pilot Mountain Pears at Circle L Farms (Circle L Farm Drive, Hendersonville) will open on Friday, Sept. 4, at 9am, for “U-pick pears” and apple sales. For more information, call 828-685-2605 or find Circle L Farms on Facebook. Sky Top Orchard (1193 Pinnacle Mountain Road, Flat Rock) is open all week with U-Pick apples and their farm-market stand (where masks are required), 9am-6pm. For more information, call 828-692-7930 or visit skytoporchard.com. For more information regarding the North Carolina Apple Festival, visit ncapplefestival.org or The North Carolina Apple Festival on Facebook.