Benny Arrington is a fourth generation North Carolina apple grower who has managed to overcome many of the labor and marketing challenges that have knocked all the other 20 or so apple growers in Haywood County, N.C., out of business.
Arrington, his son Steven and wife Jane also own and operate Barbers Orchard Fruit Stand, a North Carolina institution since it was established in 1932.
Located along U.S. Highway 74, a mile or so from one of the main entrances to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and near Waynesville, N.C., Barber’s has been a must stop for several generations of tourists visiting the Great Smoky Mountains.
Calling the popular store a fruit stand is akin to calling Paula Dean a good cook. It’s much, much more than one of North Carolina’s oldest fruit stands to regular customers who visit the bakery for everything from apple donuts to apple cider slushies.
On a recent Saturday morning, Barber’s was filled with anxious patrons, pouring through the many bins of apples to find just the right combination. In the adjacent bakery and store, a long line was waiting for an assortment of apple products that Arrington admits totals more than he can remember.
Linda Kitchens, who lives in Atlanta, says Barber’s is a must stop. “We have a mountain home near here, and I come here in the summer to buy fresh vegetables and in the fall and winter to buy apples,” she says.
On this day the Atlanta native stocked up with a gift box of apple jams for Christmas stocking stuffers, an apple pie for Thanksgiving and a half peck of Cameo apples. A long line of patrons made similar purchases on this crisp November morning.
At one time Barber Orchards spanned more than 500 acres. Arrington still grows 75 acres of apples, including 20 or so different varieties. All the Thanksgiving apple pies and cakes, apple turnovers, fritters and on and on are made fresh daily from apples grown on the North Carolina farm.
He has run the farming operation for the most part with the same labor force since he bought one of the parcels of land that once made up Barber Farms and the fruit stand in 1993.
“I read about all these horror stories of how farmers are forced to destroy crops and to go out of business because they don’t have enough labor, and I know it’s bad. But, we have been very fortunate to have a dedicated group of workers who help us during critical periods of apple production every year,” Arrington says.
In addition, the store and bakery are a veritable beehive of activity of friendly workers quick to cut you a sample slice of one apple variety or another or explain the delicate art of making donuts from apples. Finding such dedicated employees, willing to work six months out of the year, is another testament to people skills of Benny and Jane Arrington.
No stranger to apple production
Arrington was no stranger to apple production when he bought one of several tracts of land and apple orchards that once made up the sprawling Barber Orchards. He bought both the land and Barber’s Fruit Stand in the early 1990’s.
“My family was in the apple business in an adjoining county before Richard Barber planted his first apple tree in North Carolina,” Arrington says proudly. He is the fourth generation and his son Stephen is the fifth generation of Arrington’s in the apple business in the mountains of western North Carolina.
When he grew his first crop of apples on what had been Barber Farms, Arrington hired a group of Mexican laborers to help him spray, pick and process his apples. Over the years, he paid them well, treated them fairly and even helped several get green cards and subsequently U.S. citizenship.
Though many have moved on to house building and other industries, members of their family come back every year to help “Mr. Benny” with the apples.
Arrington hires a company to custom prune his apple trees, but he says labor forces are creating a real challenge for the owner to continue.
Losing his pruning crew would be a challenge, but the North Carolina grower is confident he can find the labor to do it, if he has to do so. “We hope this fellow can stay in business, but it’s hard to find people who want to work in an apple orchard in the winter time,” he adds.
In addition to 75 acres of apples, the Arringtons also grow about 10 acres of vegetables that they sell fresh, daily at the fruit stand. “We open the first day of August selling sweet corn, tomatoes, squash and a few others. Then, we start with early maturing apples and keep a fresh supply on through the latest maturing varieties. We close at 3 p.m. every Christmas Eve,” Arrington explains.
Every apple product sold in the store has to be fresh and virtually all the apples are grown on the 75 acre farm.
“In 2007, we lost most of our apples to a spring freeze. We considered closing the store, which is open from Aug. 1 until Christmas Eve. Instead, we bought some frozen apples and continued to make our products, but our customers didn’t like it and we didn’t like it,” Arrington recalls.
He knew losing his customer base for a year would be hard to overcome, so he sent his son to Virginia on regular ‘apple runs’ to supply enough apples to keep the bakery running.
The farm, which in its hay day was one of the larger ones in western North Carolina, has an interesting history.
In 1902, Richard Barber Sr. was an enterprising traveling salesman, who sold hardware up and down the East Coast. After peddling some of his wares to an apple grower in New York, he decided he wanted to get into the apple business, but wanted a warmer climate to grow his apples.
Barber rode a train to Asheville, N.C., and rented a horse and buggy and rode around the countryside looking for suitable land to grow apples. He settled at the current site of Barbers Fruit Stand, cleared pine trees from the land and planted his first apple orchards in 1903.
By the time of the Great Depression, Barber had built his orchards to over 500 acres and had developed one of the most popular and long-lasting varieties ever sold — William Tell.
In the 1930’s, Barber’s son, Richard Barber, Jr. took over the apple orchards and started the ‘fruit stand’ in 1932.
The stalwart of Barber Orchards remained William Tell apples. Ironically, one of their first clients, the A&P Tea Company, sold apples from the North Carolina orchard until the Barber’s sold their orchards to a Florida family in 1977.
In 1988, a series of bad crops and bad investments forced the Florida family out of business and Barber farms was split up into parcels and sold at auction. Most of the land once covered with William Tell and other varieties of apples is now covered with houses. One of the larger residential areas is aptly named Barber Farms.
Losing apple orchards is part of an agricultural land-loss epidemic in North Carolina. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler used to lament that his state was second only to California in the amount of farm land lost to industry and residential development each year. Sadly, the Tar Heel state is now No. 1 in that ranking.
“In this county, I can remember when there were several thousand acres of apple orchards and more than 20 growers. Now, I’m it,” Arrington concludes.