By Felecia Shelor
Pat Spence, his wife Janis and their son Kevin, have delivered apples and peaches from their farm in Woolwine to our market in Meadows of Dan for 14 years. Janis passed away in 2011.
I was worried about Pat when Janis died. The orchard kept him going. He wants to keep it going for his son Kevin, who works in the orchard and also works full time at the Hanes factory in Woolwine. Pat has two sons, but it is he and Kevin who grow the peaches and apples. They also grow apricots, plums, and Asian Pears.
The warm weather in January caused the peach trees to bloom too early. When the winter set back in, the freeze killed the blossoms. Pat lost 90 percent of his peach crop this year to that freeze. He was beside himself, upset over it at the time. He seems to have resigned himself to his loss now though. He seems to be at peace. So far the apple crop is looking very hopeful.
Pat brought a lawn chair from his house for me. He put it in the wagon of his 1976 Ford tractor. We are going to take a ride through his orchards. Pat puffs on his old fashioned pipe, as his dog Chopper, a shiny black German shepherd mix, follows the tractor up and down and all around the slopes of the Blue Ridge between Meadows of Dan and Woolwine.
It’s a little scary riding in that wagon behind the tractor straight up and down the side of the mountain. Pat stops at many places to show me things and tell me things about the orchards and about what I’m looking at in the mountains above us. I am surprised to see how close Lover’s Leap is to Mountain View and Belcher’s Mountain.
When the ride gets too rough I get off the lawn chair and sit down in the floor of the wagon. I’m a little afraid we will hit a rock and toss me over the side. But I trust Pat. He knows what he is doing. I’m not too afraid. Chopper never lets us out of his sight, up and down, up and down the side of the mountain, he runs, for hour after hour, following behind the tractor.
From Pat’s orchards I can see the wall at Lover’s Leap. I can see Conner’s View. My farm is on the mountain just west of Conner’s View. I can see Belcher Mountain. I can see the small world that is my home from a different point of view, here at the foot of the Blue Ridge.
Pat and Kevin produce about 4,000 bushels of fruit each year. We sell most of what they grow at our farm market. Pat is pure country with his old fashion talk and old fashion ways, so I did not expect him to live in such a nice artsy looking house. I suspect Janis had everything to do with that beautiful home. Pat said she picked out the floor plan. She looked at the plan through a mirror and then turned the home around opposite on the site, from what was called for, in the plan. It worked. It really worked. I would never have had that vision.
Pat’s orchard is immaculate. I am deeply touched by the incredible amount of work he puts into his orchards. Pat is 70-years-old. He does most of the work by himself. It is obviously a labor of love.
Pat and Kevin grow more than thirty varieties of peaches and apples: Stayman, Winesap, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Gold Rush, York, Jonagold, Blondie, Granny Smith, Fuji. They grow three varieties of early apples that are best used for cooking, Pristine, William’s Pride and Rambo. Pat grows some apples that he calls “old timey.” They are Buckingham, Black Twig, and Spitzenburg. The modern day term for old timey apples is now “Heirloom.” Pat said the Spitzenburg apple is one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson grew. Of course, I had to look that fact up to verify it. The Spitzenburg apple does indeed have the reputation as the favorite dessert apple of Thomas Jefferson. He ordered 12 trees of this variety from a Long Island Nursery in 1790 to plant at Monticello.
There are also a few Honeycrisp apple trees in Pat’s orchard. Honeycrisp is the most sought after apple of all, these days. Janis helped him plant the Honeycrisp trees the year before she died.
It was actually Janis who came from a long line of apple and peach growers. Both sides of her family have been growing apples in Woolwine for generations. Her father, Bud Belcher, grew apples and timbered right here where we are standing. Pat was a painter and a carpenter. He always helped his in-laws with the orchards but he became more involved when Kevin fell ill 16 years ago. Pat started doing a lot of the work that Kevin was not able to do at the time, and has worked full time in the orchards ever since.
Pat showed me row after row of new peach trees he and Kevin set out recently. It takes four years for a peach tree to produce fully. Not many people are willing to invest in the future like that these days, I thought, especially at 70 years-old. A peach tree can live for 12 to 15 years. An apple tree can live 40 or 50 years, but only if you take good care of them, Pat says.
It’s a beautiful, peaceful day in Woolwine. Honey bees buzz from blossom to blossom. Bumblebees and butterflies flit about in the warm spring sunshine. A babbling stream rushes down from the mountain. Pat is as nice as he can be, and as accommodating, but I feel a little sad.
I know this way of life is coming to an end. People may be able to buy apples in the future but they won’t be grown on the side of the mountain by an independent farmer like Pat. Food will come from big corporate farms. Much of it will be genetically modified.
We are of the past, Pat and I, with his small farm and my country store. There will be no place for people like us because of technology, government regulations, and the corporate takeover of America. We cannot compete. It’s already very hard to survive and nearly impossible to start out new. Our way of life is endangered like those of the honey bees and bumblebees.
A honey bee flies past my face and lights on an apple blossom. The honey bees seem to be thriving just fine, here at the foot of The Blue Ridge. Watching the honey bees busy at work restores my good cheer. I hope our children and grandchildren can pick up where we leave off. I say to myself. It is entirely possible.
(Shelor, of Meadows of Dan, is a local business owner and community activist.)