Kenny Barnwell, of Kenny Barnwell Orchard in Hendersonville, N.C., is the apple grower you wish everyone could meet and talk with just once. A blend of downhome fourth and fifth generation farmer (apples go way back on both sides of Kenny’s family) and educated scientist, he possesses both chemistry and biology degrees. Like so many of the industry’s successful, long-term producers, Kenny combines years of practical farming experience with current science-based knowledge, including plant pathogens and other crop conditions, managed pesticide treatment, and similarly tricky issues farmers face every day.
Barnwell is charmed in that he was born in Henderson County, N.C., a farming utopia in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. Agriculture was the first source of revenue in the area, where rich soil is good for growing a multitude of crops—from wine grapes and tomatoes to poinsettias, and of course, apples. In fact, when pioneer settlers first entered the county, they brought fruit trees with them.
When Kenny left for college in 1976, he says the last thing he thought he would do was return home to grow apples. Yet, he found that he missed the area and the farming lifestyle. Kenny worked with his family for nine years, learning how to grow apples and what it takes to be in the apple industry. In 1983, he bought his first orchard and in 1989 leased two more and finally set out on his own. As things progressed, he bought a half a packing house and began making other changes, like adding juicing and processing equipment for other growers. At that point, the college graduate who didn’t intend to grow apples was trucking loads of fruit into Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan to those who needed product to sell to retail or process.
Today Kenny farms 150 acres of apples and 10 acres of peaches. He has two long-term controlled atmosphere (CA) storage units and two short-term storage units. The apples he stores go on to greatness, as Kenny stores for Gerber baby food through parent company, Nestle. A big part of Kenny’s market is selling bins of fruit to roadside stands and the retail supply chain. In other words, Kenny Barnwell Orchard is strictly wholesale—no retail—with 30 percent going to processed products like baby food or juice and 70 percent sold on the fresh market. Despite both sets of Kenny’s grandparents having roadside stands on busy Highway 64 when he was growing up, the farmer says, “It’s amazing how much fruit goes across country from there, but retail wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Asked if growing for Gerber in recent years has added extra pressure concerning food safety, Kenny says he has only changed one thing: To be USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) safety-audit- certified, he now writes down what he had already been doing—documentation. “We’ve known we’re producing a food product that people are going to eat,” he quips. “Of course we’re going to grow it to be safe.” As a good indicator of his confidence, Kenny says he takes his seven-year-old granddaughter into his orchards, where for years he has simply wiped off and fed her fresh produce. His number one concern? That of most every farmer: A working immigration system with a guest worker program, something he routinely speaks to his representatives about.
Kenny has watched farming change through the years. In 1980, there were 33 fruit packers and 10-thousand acres of apple orchards in the county. Today, there are around five primary apple packers and between five and six-thousand acres of trees. While the industry is actually growing in Henderson County, the premise is different. Historically, with limited cooler space, the method was pick, pack, ship—work as hard as you can to get the fruit harvested, packed, and shipped out immediately. Now, with more coolers and more bins, farmers can pick, store, and market in a much more orderly fashion. The varieties have changed through the years, as well, from traditional Red and Golden Delicious and Rome varieties to newer ones like Pink Lady®, Gala, Jonagold, Cameo, and more obscure varieties. Henderson County also has its first hard cidery.
There are also a lot more meetings, paperwork, and political responsibilities in farming than when Kenny started. But the man who grew up with apple orchards right outside his house can still appreciate some of the same things. “You can ride the land that’s been in the family for several generations and see exactly what your granddad saw. If you’re having a bad day, you can go out and look over these mountains and not just be sitting at a desk. Farming is a good way to live. There’s a lot of hard work and fickleness with the weather, but it’s just a good lifestyle.”