How Do You Like Them Apples?
Daily Progress, Lifestyles
By David A. Maurer - 2005
Reprinted with Permission
Heirloom machinery maintains fruitful tradition
For nearly a half century the L-shaped machine has helped sort and grade apples from Henley’s Orchard, just north of Crozet. It already was well broken in when it was trucked from an orchard near Covesville back when Dwight Eisenhower was still president.
“When I bought the grader in 1960, two growers had used it before that,” said Joe T. Henley Jr., who was a 5-year-old boy in 1933 when his father bought Holly Hill Farm. “It was 20 or 30 years old then. “I gave $7,000 for it, which was a lot of money. You wouldn’t believe what some of the new ones are going for. The real fancy ones are about $500,000.
The calendar of the countryside announces the approach of autumn in many ways.
It can be felt in the early morning chill that makes one think about hunting for that work jacket. If you stand in the front drive of Holly Hill Farm and look west, autumn also can be seen in the first dabs of red and orange beginning to color Buck’s Elbow Ridge.
In the farm’s weathered fruit packing shed, there’s often a sound this time of year that for some heralds the coming of fall as clearly as leaves fluttering to the ground. The thumping and bumping song of the Wayland apple-grading machine lets everyone within earshot know that harvest time has come.
“Now, when we start it up, I just wonder what’s going to break. I’m getting so...Well, it used to be it didn’t bother me to have problems, and now I wake up in the morning wondering what’s going to happen today. What’s going to break down?”
Nearby, Charles “Tim” Henley leaned against the grader, smiling at his 77-year-old father’s remarks. At 51, he still has the optimism of youth as well as a nostalgic bent that makes it unthinkable to replace the old apple machine with the new.
“We don’t have any plans to put in a new state-of-the-art electronic eye grader or anything like that,” Tim Henley said. “I enjoy doing things like the old-timers used to do it.
“It gives me a good feeling to hear the old machine running. When it’s running, I just love seeing everybody in their position and doing their part. A sad feeling comes over me when the last bin of apples of the season runs over the grader. When it happens, I know it’s going to be another year before we’re back into it again.”
This year that last bin of apples probably will roll through around Christmas time. The machine can run into January, but the last variety of apples, Granny Smith, didn’t set fruit very well this year, so the Henleys said they will run low on them early.
But, for most of the 30-plus varieties of apples grown in Henley Orchard, it has been a good year. The orchard also yielded a bumper crop of peaches as sweet as a first kiss.
In front of the tin-roofed packing shed are two small grading tables that could easily be a century old. This year nearly 5,000 bushels of peaches were graded and sorted by hand on the antiques.
“It seemed like every farm in the entire area used to have an orchard of some sort, and they all graded on tables like this,” Tim Henley said, nodding his head at the card-table-sized graders, which have raised sides and a gated slot where fruit can be rolled through and into boxes.
We grade peaches and early apples on these all summer. All you do is pour a box of peaches or apples on the table, pick out the rots and grade the rest. We picked our first peaches this year around the middle of June, and they were sweet from the get-go. The first peach I ate this year was really five or six peaches in a row. The peaches all have been sold and now the apple reigns supreme. The trees are yielding a bumper crop that would easily overwhelm the small grading tables."
It’s time for the Wayland’s five electric motors to start humming and the drive-chains to yowl into life. A few weeks ago Tim Henley dusted the entire machine off and wiped down the tables on which the apples move along.
Sprockets are turning
The father of three also oiled and greased all the moving parts, such as the drive-chains and sprockets that turn the belt the apples roll along on.
“This machine is so old that a lot of the parts are obsolete, so you might have to get a machinist to build something that breaks,” Tim Henley said. “When it breaks, we just work on it and fix it back up.
“This machine was built in Covesville, and there used to be a similar machine out that way that belonged to an orchard that went out of business. We’ve gotten things like replacement brushes from it.
“Near the front of the machine are [roller] brushes that dust off the apples and shine them up as they go through. To put a new brush in is an all day job.”
During the peak of the apple-picking season the Wayland will move about 80 bushels of apples an hour past the people who are doing the grading. The operation starts when a hydraulic system lifts and dumps a wooden bin containing about 20 bushels of apples into a hamper near the front of the unit.
As the apples start moving along the table, a person pulls stems and leaves from the fruit. The apples then roll over a section with holes big enough for little apples, called “peewees,” to fall through and into a box. As the apples rumble along, quick hands and keen eyes will separate and grade them into three other categories. The jumbo apples will be removed after the peewees, because they have a tendency to get stuck along the way and stop the machine.
Gates along the conveyor belt help separate medium-size apples from the best of the best -- the No. 1 apples. The No. 1 apples are the ones consumers will buy at fruit stands and grocery stores within a 50-mile radius of Crozet. All the other apples will be used for juice, cider, apple sauce and apple butter.
“We hope, at least, half the bin will be number one fruit,” Tim Henley said. “It really should be more than that, but you never know. Certain varieties finish better than others. “You want the number ones to be flawless. They can’t have any bug bites, bruises, rust, things like that. But no being a big orchard, we can handle more blemishes than the bigger orchards that have to tray pack a lot of their fruit.
“We just bulk pack and because we deal with small stores and fruit stands, they can handle a little bit rougher-looking fruit. Sorting and grading is second nature to the people doing it, and they do as good a job as we need done.”
When the Wayland is rolling there are a many as 10 people stationed alongside. This labor-intensive grading operation is dependent on a neighborly spirit that’s vital in a farming community. “As long as I can remember, the people who have graded with us have been mostly friends of our family who come over and help us,” Tim Henley said. “And we have a lot of retired people who come to the farm and help out.“Some get paid and some don’t want to get paid. They just want something to do. I’ve made good friends with all of them, and they’ve taught me a lot about the old ways of doing things.”
Among the people who can be found grading apples are Henley's twin 8-year old boys, Brooke and Steele, and his 11-year old daughter, Jacquelyn. Farming takes so much hands-on work you can't hardly get it all done", said Tim Henley. "We've always got a list a mile long of things to do. Everybody who works here is like family and everybody gets the benefit of the entire property."
To remain successful, the Henleys think as hard as they work. They have to stay abreast of consumer trends and even try to affect them when they can.
I've seen it change from orchards having a lot of old-fashioned varieties of apples to just having red and golden delicious apples," Tim Henley said. "All the old varieties, like Albemarle pippins kind of went out of style".
“Now people are realizing what the good apples are, and the old-fashioned varieties are coming back. We’ve cut down block after block of red and golden delicious trees, and replaced them with sweeter varieties, like Albemarle Pippins, Smokehouse, Fuji and Gala.
“We’re kind of teaching people about what apples are best tasting. We push a lot of different varieties on the stores and they put out samples. Once the consumer tastes them, they realize the difference.”
Joe Henley said red delicious apples used to be the main thing the orchard grew, but now the business can hardly give them away around these parts. The reason he and his son gave for this turnaround is simply a matter of taste. “At one time, all the big chain stores were pushing red and golden delicious apples,” Tim Henley said. “They’re easy to grow and look so good. People were mainly buying apples for looks alone. “But once people got tired of eating a plain-tasting apple, they finally went back to the good apples. The Albemarle pippin is my favorite. “I do all the wholesale marketing.
Store managers ask me almost every day when are we going to have an Albemarle pippins or do I know anyone who has them. They really want them bad.”
Small wonder, considering the tasty apple was once so popular that shiploads of them were allowed into England, duty free. But for all their flavor, the pippin is not a handsome apple or easy to grow. “I want an apple that’s sweet, juicy and will keep good,” said Joe Henley, who gives golden delicious the nod as his favorite. “ I had some golden delicious that I stuck in the refrigerator last fall and they lasted until March. “The Albemarle pippins keep well, but they’re mean to grow. They’ll get rots, funguses and things like that if you don’t take real good care of them.”
Albemarle pippins are no beauty queens, but that doesn’t matter to those who choose taste above looks. The only reason to put them on the grading table at all is to cull the rotted ones. “All Albemarle pippins are number ones, because they’re so good,” Tim Henley said. “You know there’s going to be defects on them. “Most of them are going to be covered with things like little speckles. You wouldn’t pick those out because of that.
“A red or golden delicious has to be flawless. They have to have the looks, because that’s the only thing that will sell them. Some stores want every variety we have displayed in their produce department. “Eventually people try them and realize they’ve been buying apples that aren’t very good. Then they start buying all these funny looking varieties that are absolutely delicious.”
It hasn’t just been peoples’ tastes that have changed since the Henley family got into the orchard business. The elder statesman of the family remembers when teams of horses were used in the orchard to pull the spray wagon.He also remembers having to build a fire under the engine of their old Fordson tractor in the wintertime to warm it up enough so that the starting crank could be turned. But one of the biggest, and saddest, changes he has seen is the loss of orchards. “A world of people have gone out of the orchard business,” Joe Henley said. “The old saying here around Crozet was that you could walk from White Hall to Lynchburg and not get out of a peach orchard. “And that was pretty much so. We used to have more than a hundred acres of just peach trees. Now we have maybe 35 acres of apple trees and 40 acres of peach trees. “Sometimes I think it may be the wrong thing to do to continue farming. We had a hailstorm a couple years ago, and we had a one hundred percent loss in the orchard. Almost every year we’ll have some frost, and that’ll get the trees in the low places.”
Tim Henley listens to his dad and knows he’s right. But to his way of thinking, not farming would be like not breathing. The Henleys have diversified into cattle, so if the fruit gets wiped out, they’ll be able to survive. There’s also timber that can be harvested, if push comes to shove. “Farming is like any kind of business, there’s a challenge factor to it,” Tim Henley said. “We have to meet the challenge, and I don’t mind struggling."
“Yes, Virginia is changing and farming is getting harder and harder to do. But I’m so glad to still be part of farming in Virginia. “I’m just glad to keep the farming tradition going. It’s my goal in life to keep it going and not let it get away.”
Tim Henley’s wife, Sarah, homeschools their children and he “farm schools” them. At least part of most days the kids are helping him do things like mend fences, grade apples, or lend a hand with retail sales, which they love to do. “I see so many kids nowadays who have no idea what a farm is,” Tim Henley said. “Their parents might remember, but they don’t have any way to convey that farm knowledge to them."
“We’re one of the last family-run, diverse farms that can hold its own in the country. They’re getting few and far between throughout the entire state of Virginia. Nowadays, you’re lucky to see a peach orchard between here and Lynchburg. But we’re going to hang in there.”
About midpoint on the Wayland grader is its nameplate. The company’s name is still clear, but the faded red lettering above and below is almost gone.
On close inspection, the words “Best grading with Wayland Fruit Packing Equipment” could be made out. Tim Henley won’t argue with that.