It’s a warm afternoon at the River Arts District farmers market in Asheville North Carolina. Cars whizz past on the busy road as farmers set up their tents. Summer produce is everywhere, but it’s definitely fall at this booth.
It’s apple season in the Southern Appalachians and Dawn Creasman, co-owner of Creasman Farms, has about a dozen different varieties in her van today. “Right now I’m putting out Mutsu, but we have Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala, Northern Spy, Snow Sweet, and more,” she says.
Dawn talks about these apples like old friends. In fact, she spends a lot of time talking about apples. When people come to her booth, they not only pick out their favorites from the metal buckets, but also they learn about some surprising varieties.
“This one will make you pucker when you eat it,” Dawn says to a customer as she bags up his apples. This particular variety, called Stayman, is rarely found on grocery store shelves. Its history stretches back to the 1860s, and in the right hands this apple can perk up any pie.
There were just four kinds of apples at Creasman Farms after Dawn and her husband Bobby purchased their property in 1995. Bobby learned to grow apples from his father and grandfather on their original homestead in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Back then, the family mostly sold to a small co-op and a regional farmers market. When Dawn and Bobby took over in the ‘90s, they decided to grow apples that could keep fresh and travel many miles to processors up north.
“We used to do what we call “processing apples” which is where we sold truckloads of apples in these big tractors and trailers,” she remembers. “We would pack in 20 bushel bins and we would ship 40-44 of those bins at one time to processors and canneries up the coast in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Virginia. But we decided that it would be in our best interest not to do that anymore and to go more retail.”
About 15 years ago, Dawn and Bobby stopped selling to processors and started selling directly to consumers. They planted about a dozen new varieties not knowing which ones would be popular with the public. It can take three to five years for apple trees to mature before their first harvest, so choosing the wrong variety one spring can mean years of headaches.
“You’ve got a big investment in it so you’ve got to pick the right kind of apples or you’ve wasted a lot of time, money, and effort,” Dawn says.
The Creasman family sells at seven farmers markets each week during apple season. They split up on the weekends, and with the help of their grown daughters, they sell at four markets on Saturdays alone. Dawn says selling directly to customers has been more profitable for their farm. “We found out it’s better for us. You kind of control, as much as you can with mother nature and the markets, you kind of control your destiny a little bit.”
Even though she won’t know how many people will show up at farmers markets or how many apples they will buy, she says selling directly to the public is actually more predictable. “With processing, they might buy one load a year or they might buy 15 loads a year and so you have to take care of your trees just the same so if you were counting on 15 loads and you got one. Then you’re in a world of hurt financially, thinking ‘what am I going to do with all these apples?’”
These days, many of those apples stay on the farm where the public can pick their own on Sunday afternoons. Dawn says talking to customers at the orchard makes her feel connected and that they have a lot of customers that feel just like family.
“We built a lot of friendships,” she says. “It’s a good way to learn your community. They’ve given us a lot of good feedback, so that helps us decide what we want to plant or don’t want to plant or how we we want to grow our food.”
Creasman Farms is one of many u-pick apple orchard in the region. It’s near Route 64 in the Lake Lure area, often called “apple alley” because of all the roadside stands. Find more orchards like Creasman Farms at www.appalachiangrown.org