Part Three of a series on the apple houses of the Blue Ridge Mountains
The concept of the apple house evolved as means for farmers to extract income from passing travelers, while the purchasers of their goods thought the acts to be fair bargains. Like their ancestors, the roadside fruit stand, the apple houses were thought to be dependent on a constant flow of vehicles driven by people, with a willingness to stop their cars and money to purchase food products, once they have stopped.
The Great Recession that started in 2007 in the Southern Highlands has closed the doors of the apple houses that were remote from main tourist routes or that functioned as large fruit stands. Those apple houses that were merely a place to grab a basket of apples on the way to somewhere else are boarded up now. They shared the fate of many restaurants in the region. In 2000 the mountain town of Jasper had a thriving, recently renovated downtown with almost 100% occupancy and 12 restaurants. Within a few months after gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon in 2008, all of downtown Jasper’s restaurants were closed.
A few glorified apple stands still display their fruit for a few weeks during the “fall leaf season” of the Southern Appalachians. However, in recent years their parking areas only held one or two vehicles during this peak mountain tourist period when certain medium and large sized apple sizes required off-duty law enforcement officers to direct traffic. It is clear that those apple houses that became diversified outlets for a wide range of locally grown food products are best able to weather the economic hurricane that doesn’t seem inclined to go away.
Two important innovations enabled certain apple houses to survive and thrive in the troubled times of the 21st century. Agronomists developed varieties of apples and peaches that matured at different times between June and October, thus stretching out the availability of fresh fruit. Secondly, astute farmer-entrepreneurs realized that fruit buyers would also buy high quality, locally grown vegetables while in their stores. The rich valley soils and unique climate of the Southern Highlands produce a wide range of vegetables that are superior quality to what one normally sees in supermarkets. The terrain of the region is not conducive to the corporate scale production of vegetables. Nevertheless, the availability of black, bottomland soils is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the apple houses.
Islands of prosperity
On a hot, Sunday afternoon in July three retail establishments in the southern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains had parking lots almost full of cars, while the restaurants that were still in business looked longingly out their doors for customers. All three were supersized apple houses! They were Mercier Orchards, just north of Blue Ridge, GA. Panarama Farm Market in East Ellijay, GA and R & A Orchards on the Rt. 52 Apple House Row, east of Ellijay. Several more mega-apple houses only operate between September 1 and Christmas.
The busiest of these three mega-apple houses and the most remote, was R & A Orchards. It is located near the Chattahoochee National Forest amidst rolling, verdant pastures and archipelagos of fruit trees. A few minutes of observation from the corner of the R & A Orchards parking lot made it clear that most of its customers were driving specifically to their business and then going back the way they came. Car tags were from states and provinces throughout eastern North America, plus one from Alaska. Most customers were not tourists taking a break from their journey to buy a bag of fruit.
The surviving apple houses of the North Georgia Mountains have become tourist destinations. In fact, they are about the only privately owned tourist destinations that were still in business. This is a very different economic concept than what propelled farmers in the mid-20th century to build roadside stands to sell off surplus apples.
The atmosphere inside R & A Orchard retail store could best be described as like intermission at a suburban multiplex cinema. The space is lined with booths that sell pastries, beverages, condiments and short order meals. Customers were lined up at every booth. Within the interior of the store are display islands for a wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables. On the walls were shelves for jellies, preserves, apple butter, honey, cider and anything else edible that is produced locally. Employees were constantly scurrying about refilling retail displays.
Because of frantic pace of sales, it was obviously not appropriate to ask the owners of R & A, the Futch Family, to lead a leisurely tour of the facility, as was graciously granted by the Aaron Family, early in the morning on the previous day. (See Part Two of this series.) This was a surprise. Sunday afternoon in mid-summer prior the recession was a time when one could walk into the R & A Orchards store after hiking along Noontootla Gorge, and enjoy an extended casual chat with employees concerning the apple, peach or sweet corn crop that year.
The folks at R & A are genuinely friendly, but they are dealing with the results of marketing magic. To enjoy folksy chats with farm families, visitors to Apple House Row in Gilmer County, GA will have to patronize one of the medium or small apple houses such as Mack Aaron’s or B. J. Reece’s establishments.
A farm family’s marketing magic
In 1947 Leonard and Della Payne planted some apple trees near newly paved Highway 52. Their daughter Anne and her husband, Roger Futch, joined the farm operation in 1969. Roger and Anne opened a roadside fruit stand in 1972, calling it R & A. In 1983, their son, Andy, planted his first trees for an FFA project. That same year, their daughter, Rhonda, began helping out at what was now a true “apple house” instead of a roadside stand. In 1991 Andy married Jennifer Reece and brought her into the family business. Andy and Jennifer, along with their four offspring, Amanda, Jessica, Anna and Jacob are all involved with the business. Just like Mack Aaron’s Apple House, visited in Part Two, R & A Orchards is a family affair.
Currently, R & A Orchards maintains 60 acres of apples and 10 acres of peaches and nectarines. They also purchase a wide variety of garden fruits and vegetables from neighbors in the Cartacay Community. During September, R & A offers wagon rides through the orchard and allows visitors to pick their own apples.
It is obvious that the Futch Family and their employees work hard and produce fruits of consistent, exceptional quality. However, the presence of large crowds of customers in a time of the year when most apple houses were formerly closed, suggest that there are several more factors affecting their success.
The Southern Highlands as a whole are in a deep socioeconomic crevasse. Many former community leaders have been financially and emotionally wiped out, while the region’s elected leaders have embraced a philosophy that do-as-little-as-possible government is the best government. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the population Why would a family-run business in a relatively remote rural area be one of the few thriving enterprises remaining?
Answers to the question seem to fall in the realm of real estate and marketing economics. The business’s location, the building’s interior design and the psychological makeup of contemporary American consumers all reinforce the obvious hard work and intelligent farming decisions made by the Futch Family.
R & A Orchards is one of the few apple houses on Apple House Row that has the landscaping and site planning of a typical suburban Atlanta retail establishment. Most of the apple houses have either gravel paving or a rectangular asphalt expanse with minimal landscaping. The attention to site appearance reads “quality” to tourists from urban areas. There may not be any difference in the quality of the fruits and vegetables inside, but first impressions are often the most important in retail marketing.
Location is a key factor in a retail businesses success. An economic principal known as Hoteling’s Theory states that the majority of consumers will stop at the first available retail outlet, if all retail outlets on a linear corridor are equal. Highway 52 is visually constrained for most of its route by hilly terrain and tall forests, until one reaches the Cartacay Community. Suddenly, one has long vistas of mountains and rolling pastures provided by the Cartacay River Valley. For about seven miles travelers pass nondescript restaurants and apple houses, mostly now out of business, then the vista opens up to reveal a well-manicured agribusiness on the left with a large parking lot. It is an open invitation to stop and shop.
The interior design of the shop consists of simple, wood trimmed architecture that functions as a stage back drop for brightly colored fruits and vegetables. The walls are lined with booths like a medieval market. The visual impact is to encourage visitors to explore and discover new experiences. Its psychological effect is for the customers to stay there to socialize and shop, not buy one thing and race out the door.
Success breeds success. If consumers see two restaurants side by side, one with an empty parking lot and the other filled with cars, the majority will inevitably stop at the busy establishment even though they know that they will have to wait in line to be served. It is the same with the cluster of agribusinesses on Apple House Row. Once the Futch Family began attracting a disproportionate amount of patronage due to the location and landscaping of their apple house, an increasing percentage of potential customers came their way. The scale of their off-season patronage reached the point where many customers viewed their establishment as THE destination when traveling to Apple House Row.
The retail diversification of the apple houses in the Southern Highlands appears to be just beginning. The large establishments such as R & A Orchards, Mercier Orchards and Panarama Farm Market have become anchors for future community economic development in an otherwise dismal socioeconomic environment. They have the potential for becoming retail outlets for a wide range of locally based agribusiness activities.
One of the largest gold nuggets every found in North America (4.5 pounds) was unearthed in the 1800s near the banks of the Cartacay River and present day Apple House Row. It could well be, however, that the region’s new gold grows on trees.