When Eve risked plucking that first apple, it didn't turn out so well. But when farmers in Henderson County, N.C., risked their livelihood on apples, they created a veritable Eden.
It was a calculated risk, based on intimate knowledge of the land developed over generations of working family farms. With its mountainous terrain, warm days and cool nights, the western side of North Carolina is ideal for growing apples. The climate provides just the right amount of chilling. Topography works in the farmers' favor, too. When cold air sinks into gullies at the bottom of hills, it protects the fruit trees above from frost. Combine that with good soil and you get consistently good flavor and production. This sparked an interest in resurrecting a craft beverage industry that harkens back to America's colonial era.
Appalachian farmers intuitively understood the value of apples in the 1800s when trees planted by settler William Mills flourished. Like the original Eden, things went well for a while. In the 1990s, however, North Carolina's apple industry fell from grace when commercial juice companies outsourced to China.
"Seventy-five percent of the processing market disappeared," says farmer Kenny Barnwell, who saw his agrarian way of life flash before his eyes. "Except for college, I've always lived within 100 yards of an orchard."
Farmers found an angel in agritourism. When the commercial market dwindled, many opened roadside stands.
Carden's agency promoted agritourism and persuaded growers to open their orchards to visitors hungry for authentic experiences.
"Families want to make memories and Henderson County is well-suited for that," Carden says.
That's evident on the Crest of the Blue Ridge Orchard Trail, where families frolic among 20 orchards offering U-pick produce, farm stands, hayrides, corn mazes and the chance to fire an apple "cannon."
Henderson County, about 20 miles south of the tourist hot spot of Asheville, accounts for 85% of the apple harvest in North Carolina, the seventh largest apple-producing state in the U.S. Nearly 300,000 people attended this year's Apple Festival over Labor Day weekend.
"Some farmers make their entire year on festival sales," Barnwell says. "Agritourism has been a godsend."