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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Ron & Suzanne Joyner


Ron and Suzanne Joyner have been growing heirloom apples at Big Horse Creek Farm near Lansing for thirty-five years. They are members of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, even though apple trees are not grown from seeds. Sometimes apple seeds produce the same variety of apple as the mother apple such as Grimes Golden, Golden Delicious, and Snow apple to some extent, but according to Ron, 99% of the time, they do not. If you plant an apple seed, you get whatever apple the seed wants to give you. So that is why you need to buy apple tree seedlings from reputable farmers. Or you can get cuttings and graft them.

Ron explains, “When early settlers came in, they were planting seeds from apple trees that they brought here. Every once in a while, somebody would plant a handful of seeds, and one would be just an exceptional apple. They would save that, and grow it, and keep it in the family, or share it with friends. Eventually, it would become a popular variety, and would be a standout apple.”

“We had a lot of varieties in our collection that were discovered out of state, out of the country. Macintosh, for example, an old apple came out of Canada. Every apple does have a story, has a history with it that is fascinating itself as actually holding the fresh fruit. Some of the stories of discovery and propagation, how people kept them in families for generations. There are some fascinating tales that go with all these old varieties.”

He continues, “If we're talking about a specific apple from Ashe County, we have to discuss husk sweet, which we found on our property back in '85, just after we bought our property, just growing as a wild tree. [...] There were so many wild apples that were growing on our property. We had gone around collecting them, sampling them, seeing which ones were worth keeping, worth grafting and propagating. We discovered this one outstanding apple, this beautiful red apple, intensely sweet apple. We collected cuttings. We started growing it and offering it to the public. It really gained popularity because of its sweetness and the beauty of it.”

The Joyners had a friend in Los Angeles who wanted to grow apples in the heat of LA, and the Husk Sweet thrived there. “This friend of ours was involved in a project working with several African countries to get varieties that would grow in the climates of several African countries. He included husk sweet as one of these possibilities. Now, Husk Sweet is being grown in Africa as a commercial variety,” Ron says.

“The name ‘Husk’ came from the little crossroads, a little train stop that’s just down the road from us called Husk or Nella. [...] When the Virginia Creeper train came through, it was just one of the stops on that train,” adds Suzanne.

Ron says, “We discovered early on that it wasn’t a good keeper, but that it was a great fresh-eating apple. We found that it was always at its best as a dried apple, because it was almost like a candy, it was so sweet. It is the sweetest apple that we raise. There’s no acid in it. There’s no sourness or tartness to it—it’s just all sugar and honey.”

The Pitmaston Pineapple, as the name implies, is supposed to taste like pineapple, but “it tastes more like fresh pear to me,” says Ron. “The Winter Banana [...] when properly grown smells like a banana and has a flavor like a banana.” They explain that they share heirloom cuttings back and forth with other growers across the country. The Winter Banana originated in Indiana in the 1800’s and “was very popular around here for generations, [but] it’s a rare apple now. But that’s what we do in our work, is to find these rare apples and get them into our collection.” 

In Ashe County, the varied topography and microclimates make growing apples, as well as other heirlooms, a challenge. Ron describes how the micro-climates in the mountains can affect the apples, since even a couple hundred feet difference in elevation will impact the climate and soil temperature.

“Even in our orchard, we see that phenomenon where trees planted on a slope during freezing periods, in the spring, the trees at the bottom of the cold cells would be more affected than the trees at the top. Those unique climates, they come into play a lot on how these old heirlooms are used and developed and kept alive.”

Several heirloom apples are very prevalent in Ashe County even though they didn’t originate here. “For example, the Virginia Beauty [...] that’s our most popular,” Suzanne says.

Ron adds, “It originated in Southwest Virginia, not that far from here, in the Pipers Gap community. […] We know that in 1810 a fellow named Zach Safewright [...] planted a dozen seeds in his backyard from these apples. This one tree just proved to be really exceptional. [...] He shared it with other people. People really started falling in love with this apple. [...] Zach had been selling it as Zach's Red for a long time. This entrepreneur came along and he got cuttings. He started selling it as Virginia Beauty, and it became immensely popular throughout the South. [...] He had the potential to become America's number one apple, but in 1870, the Stark Brothers introduced Red Delicious, and everything else disappeared. The Virginia Beauty just disappeared. [The Red Delicious] shipped very well, which was a primary consideration.”

Suzanne laughs, “[That’s] its only good characteristic. It's the one variety that we actually do not grow.” 

When asked how to identify apples you find growing wild, Ron admits, “that’s one of our greatest challenges. We find old apple trees, or people come to the market and they bring us apples and say, ‘What is this apple?’ Again, the fact that apples don’t reproduce true from seed, somebody comes to the market with a bag full of a dozen different red apples, and they want me to identify them. I have to determine first, ‘Was this planted by somebody, was it grafted by somebody, or is this just a wild tree?’ Most of the time people can’t tell me that. A lot of times, I can tell people what the apple isn’t, rather than what it is. [...] Occasionally somebody will bring an apple that is very distinctive, like the Virginia Beauty. […] It has this very distinctive white-ish color around the stem that makes it a really easy apple to identify. Yellow Transparent is another easy apple. It’s an old Russian apple brought into the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture in 1870. [...] They were trying to find apples that were very cold tolerant that could grow in the Upper Midwest, Michigan, the Dakotas. The Yellow Transparent is probably our second most popular variety. […] It’s greenish-yellow apple. It’s one of the first to ripen in warmer climates. It’ll be ready to pick in July. Around here, it’s a mid-August apple. Everybody raises that for applesauce.”

When asked about the origin of a Rusty Coat apple tree in the interviewer’s yard, Ron explains that “Rusty coat is one of those apples known as a russet apple with the skin that's very rough sandpapery dry skin. It's not a smooth, waxy skin.” Together Ron and Suzanne provide details about russets: “[…] a Roxbury Russet, Razor Russet, Golden Russet… historically anytime anybody came across a rough-skinned apple like that they say, ‘Oh, that’s a Rusty Coat.’ But it’s really not.” 

Ron explains, “The Golden Russet is probably more widely distributed than the Rusty Coat.” Suzanne continues, “I feel bad because I remember this old lady, many years ago, who wanted a Rusty Coat tree [... and] I remember selling it to her, and she goes, ‘Oh yes, it’s so sweet.’ I’m going, ‘The true Rusty Coat is not sweet.’ she probably wanted a Golden Russet.” Ron continues, “The Rusty Coat never gets to be a big apple. It’s a smaller apple, tends to be dry. Makes a wonderful apple pie, it’s got a good flavor. […] You just have to be very careful when people want to identify apples. I’ve been working with apples for thirty years now, [... and] in most cases, I can say, ‘This isn’t a Rusty Coat, but I’m not sure what it is.’ That’s about the best I can do on identifying these apples.“

“Another super popular [apple] in this area is called Wolf River,” shares Suzanne. This is one of the apples grown at the Ashe County Victory Garden, and it can sometimes be identified by its large size. The Wolf River is another apple that did not originate in Ashe County but nevertheless has been an important part of local culture for generations.. Ron explains, “We know, for example, that a gentleman named William Springer [...] came out of Canada to Fremont, Wisconsin, back in the late 1800’s. Like Zach Safewright, he planted apple seeds in his backyard, and from one of those seeds this enormous apple developed at Wolf River that made just a world-class apple butter. […] Families [in Ashe County] would gather together in the fall, they’d have big family reunions and gatherings, and they’d just make Wolf River apple butter all day long, just cook apple butter over an open fire. Everybody would get a little sample of it when they went home. […] Any apple can make an apple butter, but Wolf River is the best for flavor and consistency, texture, and for making a really good apple butter.” 

Another apple common in Ashe County is the Fallawater. Ron continues, “It’s an old Pennsylvania apple. The story goes that this gentleman would watch these school kids going to school in the fall, and they'd go over to this old apple tree and dig around in the leaves and pull out these apples that were big apples, greenish colored apples that had a real good flavor.” Suzanne interjects, “[They were] real good keepers.” Ron says, “It’s one of those apples that just became so popular, became very widespread. [… It’s] grown in a lot of southern states and northern states because of the size and flavor of it.” Suzanne adds, “It’s popular here, for sure.” It is pronounced more like “Foula-water,” not “Fall-a-water,” in case any of us want to go ask for it by name. Suzanne says she has also heard it pronounced more like, “Follywater.” Suzanne goes on to share a story that illustrates this apple’s excellent capacity for long-term storing:

“Every year in the last week of September, we participate in the fall festival at Grayson Highlands State Park. It’s a wonderful, wonderful festival. A few years ago, we took bags of apples and were selling those. We came home, and I had a huge cooler with a few bags of Fallawater apples. I just completely forgot about it. Months later, I was down in the cellar, I opened that cooler, and there’s the Fallawater apples. Perfect. I was going, ‘Whoa, you guys are keepers!’”

Another crop that the Joyners grow is garlic. “We’ve been raising garlic for 40 years. [...] Before we moved up here, we were coming up on weekends and vacations and developing the land. [...] Garlic was the one thing we could plant, and then go home, and not worry about the deer eating. There was one time we were raising a dozen or more different strains of garlic. The good thing is, they don’t cross like some plants. So, we planted a lot of garlic, but right now we just raise two different varieties. […] Suzanne braids the garlic. [...] People know when August and September roll around  that it's time for garlic and they come around to our booth there at the farmers market to get their braids and get their yearly supply of garlic.” “We plant ours in November,” explains Suzanne. “Some people plant it in October, but we plant it in November and by now (the end of February) it’s peeking its head up above the straw.”

When asked if they grow any heirloom varieties, Ron responds, “Yes, we grow Musik garlic, which is an old European variety.” Suzanne explains, “Now it’s been Americanized. M-U-S-I-C.” Ron adds, “It’s a real strong flavor, real flavorful hard neck garlic. There’s a hardneck and a softneck garlic, and they both have different characteristics and flavors. The hardnecks tend to be very strong, fiery, flavorful garlic. The other variety we have is Inchelium Red. [… It] originated with the Inchelium Indians out of Washington State.”

“If we’re talking about the Indians and vegetables, we should tell you about the Junaluska apple,” says Ron. “Oh yeah,” agrees Suzanne. “This is a unique North Carolina apple that originated with the Cherokee Nation back in the early 1800’s,” continues Ron. “Chief Junaluskee, the chief of the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina back in the 1800’s, had this prized apple tree that the tribe grew and depended on. The Cherokee were amazing agriculturalists. […] The story goes that the U.S. government approached [them] about buying some of the Cherokee land. Chief Junaluska refused to part with it because of this wonderful apple tree. So, they bartered, they talked back and forth, and he ended up selling the land with the apple tree on it for $50. But then this North Carolina pomologist, Silas McDowell, came along. He collected cuttings off the Junaluska tree, and he was able to propagate and save that tree. It disappeared for hundreds of years [...] until a gentleman, Tom Brown, out of Clemmons, North Carolina found a Junaluska up in Macon County. Again, through the work of a collector, discovering a tree we knew about but nobody was sure still existed. We knew Silas McDowel had this detailed description, history of it [...] but assumed it had become extinct like so many of those wonderful old American apples. Tom Brown found it and was able to share cuttings with other growers. We have a Junaluska growing in our collection.” Suzanne adds, “It’s a robust tree, grows well.” Because someone saved it, Ron says, “It’s available for use and consumption today. They not only saved it, but they kept records of it. We know how this apple came about. [...] There’s such wonderful stories and histories, if you just take your time to pull out the documentation.”

Suzanne explains, “It’s interesting to me, when we sell our apple trees at the farmers market, we go to great pains, and we have descriptive cards. Ron can go on and on about the history, but then people say, ‘Yeah, but how does it taste?’” she laughs. Ron says you have to be careful when someone asks what his favorite apple is, and how it tastes. “Everyone’s palate is different. […] An apple that I think is very sweet, somebody might say, ‘Oh, that’s too sour for me.’ It’s remarkable how people interpret flavors like that.” 

When asked about the importance of heirloom plants, Ron replies, “One of the reasons you want to keep varieties is to avoid a monoculture-type growing situation where, if we just had only one or two different apples grown across the country, if some major disease came through that could affect a specific variety, it could wipe it all out. You could lose it for a year, or you could lose it forever. The benefit of having so many different varieties, you’re always going to have something. [...] When people want to plant trees, I say pick a selection of varieties, so you get apples that ripen at different times of the season. You’ll have apples throughout the year.” Suzanne adds, “And, different varieties are better for different uses.” Some varieties are good for eating fresh, some are good for applesauce, some for apple butter, some are good keepers, some are sweet and some are tart. She continues, “Just to keep these old varieties alive, just for the sake of history, too.” Ron adds, “Apples are such an American fruit—mom and apple pie. It’s a part of our culture, who we are as Americans. I just don’t think there’s any fruit with the diversity of flavor and size and color and texture than apples. Tomatoes, people love tomatoes, but you put tomatoes down and put apples down, people are going to go for the apples.”

Suzanne and Ron have been assembling and curating an expansive collection of apples for over 30 years, and stewardship of these has become their passion. By sharing the history of these trees, along with selling the trees themselves, they are inspiring many to add apple trees to their landscape or to try growing apples for the first time. 

Interview with Ron and Suzanne Joyner by Brenda Smith 2/28/23

Ron and Suzanne Joyner's Interview Transcript



This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.

Photographer: Jay Wild

Interviewer: Brenda Smith