Mike and Rita Stepp are standing in their 70-acre farm and apple orchard in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The apples are almost ripe and soon people will come to pick them right off the trees. Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard is celebrating its 50th year as a u-pick farm and will kick off the season with popular varieties of apples like ginger gold, gala, and honey crisp.
Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard was founded by Mike’s father, J.H. Stepp, in 1967. During the early years, the family sold apples out of their car until they built a small fruit stand.
“My grandmother and my mother were the ones that would sell the apples,” Mike remembers. “They’d just kind of wait around for people to come. It was such a humble beginning.”
A few years later, the Stepp family invited the public to pick apples at the farm. At the time, many nearby orchards sold wholesale apples to commercial processors, which later became less profitable when the local processing market declined in the 1990s. It was a tough time for apple growers, but the Stepp family found stability in the u-pick market.
The family’s next big challenge was the weather. There were several years of unexpected frosts that caused low production and Mike worked other jobs off the farm. In 2003, Mike returned to the family farm with new vigor alongside his wife, Rita Stepp, who retired from teaching in 2004.
Rita is a driving force behind the farm’s renewed commitment to agritourism. Now the farm offers a 5-acre corn maze, pick-your-own pumpkins, wagon rides, apple cider, and doughnuts. Rita especially enjoys the school field trips where she uses her teaching skills to emphasize health and science—like a lesson about the life cycle of insects in the apple orchard, and other hands-on experiences that encourage a deeper understanding of the food system.
“It’s just amazing to see these children find out that apples don’t really grow at the grocery store—they really grow on trees. Just to see them pick apples and then just enjoy the farm, that’s very much refreshing and exhilarating for me,” Rita says.
But yet again, the orchard is at a crossroads. Rita and Mike have two daughters who are learning the family business, but it might be a challenge for Mike to take a step back.
“I turn 69 this month and I don’t really feel it,” Mike says. “I really enjoy doing what I do. I can’t really see quitting at any time. My dad lived until he was nearly 92 and he was working up until just a few months before he died, and so I want to keep being a part of it, but I realize we’re not going to be here forever and I’m really thankful and glad that our children enjoy doing it. I know we are in a transition state where they are learning things and doing things and being more involved where hopefully we’ll make a very smooth transition.”
It’s no small feat to keep an agritourism farm in operation for fifty years, while also planning for the future. Mike has some advice for newer farmers who want their farm to thrive for decades.
“One thing that I’ve seen, that I know is is really good for what we do, is finding a niche. Everybody’s got a story; everybody’s got things that they think they can do better, or know that they can do better than other people, and things just don’t work for them. So I would encourage young farmers to find that niche, find something that you do well, something that you enjoy. You need to enjoy it to be successful at it,” Mike says.
Luckily, Rita and Mike’s teenage granddaughters enjoy helping with the family business.
“They help a lot in the retail market. They run the ipads and check people in and and tell them where to go pick. They help in the doughnut room if we need them in the doughnut room. No matter what, they know what to do and they can just do it, and they love it. I don’t know of any better way to grow up than to be on a farm. They enjoy it so much,” Rita says.
U-pick apple season kicks off this month and runs through October. Find more information about Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard and many other u-pick farms at www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: August 19, 2019