Holt Orchards in Flat Rock, North Carolina has a legacy worth saving. A brother and sister team, Todd Kirmss and Tracy Cavagnaro, left their jobs in 2009 to come back to the family orchard full-time.
The orchard was originally their stepfather’s dream. Markie Holt planted 15 acres of apple trees in the early 1980s when Todd and Tracy were teenagers. Markie married their mother, Virginia, soon after; she did the bookkeeping and Markie grew the apples.
Markie was a farmer and also a truck driver. He transported tractor trailers full of his red and golden delicious apples to Pennsylvania to be turned into applesauce and juice. It was a job he loved, but persistent heart problems made the physical work a challenge. His health caught up with him in 2009. He was hauling a load of his apples to Pennsylvania when he pulled over in Roanoke, Virginia. He had a heart attack and passed away on the side of the road.
“We were in the middle of apple season and so Todd jumped in again and got the job done,” Tracy remembers.
Everything changed that year. Todd and Tracy rallied around their mother and together they kept the farm alive. But their mother got sick and passed away in 2014. It was another crossroads for the family. Tracy remembers that there was “a lot of heartache after she passed away and a lot of looking at each other and saying, ‘What are we going to do? And how do we do it?’” Eventually, Todd and Tracy decided to make the farm their life’s work.
First, they needed a new business plan because the apple industry was changing. The price of processing apples had dropped and it became more profitable to sell fresh apples directly to the public. Todd and Tracy had to forge a new path, planting varieties that would appeal to customers. They also had to market themselves differently.
This year, they participated in a cost share program from ASAP to help pay for marketing materials. They designed a logo, got a banner for their new booth at the Flat Rock Tailgate Market, and purchased other materials to help connect with customers. “There’s been a business since the ‘80s and there’s never been a business card,” Tracy jokes.
Todd and Tracy attended ASAP’s Business of Farming conference last year. A workshop on telling farm stories inspired them to share their family history with the public. Sometimes they wish they had a different story, one with less heartache, but in the end, they say it’s worth sharing.
“Everybody has a story and whatever your story is, it’s worth telling so people can connect to you,” Tracy says. “Now we feel more comfortable in telling our story.”
She doesn’t tell every customer at the farmers market about Markie and her mother, but when people ask how the orchard got started, she opens up to them. It’s something Markie and Virginia didn’t have to do when they sold apples to processors, but Tracy feels good about sharing their family history when they ask.
She says they want to “keep the memory of Mom and Markie alive rather than not wanting to talk about what happened to them. It’s nice to continue to talk of them and hope that they think we’re doing a good job down here.”
Todd adds, “I look up at the sky and say, ‘I hope I’m doing a good job for you, Markie.’ I hope he’s proud.”
Learn more about Holt Orchards at facebook.com/HoltOrchards