Sunday, September 5, 2010

Crossville, Tennessee: Reggie Rowell, Rowell's Orchard

My dad was in the army during World War II and there was a prisoner of War camp here on the outside of Crossville and he was stationed here. My mom was born and raised in Grassy Cove down here; that's on highway 68. They met and ended up marrying, and went dad originally was from Wales River, Vermont. And his father owned a creamery up there; they processed milk, made cheese, and stuff. So they moved back up there and they stayed about two or three years. Well then they moved down here. And this place here was originally part of the homestead project that Roosevelt started. See, there's an old homestead house. There was four homestead houses on this side of the road and one where my mom and dad lived and it went back that way. So they bought twenty acres here. Just on this side of the pond and they built this motel. And they run this motel to, well, we finally just...I'd say it really quit doing business in the early '70's. And what happened to it, was, when they built Interstate 40, that took all the traffic off this road, so, hence, what you got here you didn't want. I mean it was mor etrouble than it was worth.

So when I went away to the service...Uncle Sam sent me on my senior trip during planted the first apple trees. And he started with fifty reds and fifty golds. And then I come back and I spent thirty years working for the department of energy over at the nuclear plant; worked the night shift the last twenty five. And I helped him during the day; we all just kind of built this thing together. And we started with a hundred trees and I probably got...well, about 2500 now. And I've got three acres of peaches; I've got about 300 peach trees now. We just kept chisling away, building...mainly it was a family operated thing, you know, mom always run the salesroom and dad done the work, and my kids...I got two girls...they help some. And then we've all older and mom and dad got real old, and I'm no spring chicken now, and I've had to hire a little help along the way; we used to do all the picking and everything and I get Mexicans now to help me pick and stuff.

Basically, that's how we got to where we are today. I had another job and everthing we made we put back in the farm...we bought tractors, we bought equipment...and I'm to the point now...I don't know, I'm gettin' slower and slower. I got two daughters; one's married. Got two grandkids. And they live in Farragut and Knoxville. And then I got one that lives on the farm with me now. She's a county deputy. She's been really helpful, and if she takes to it, I'll just let her have it. The bad thing about it is, it's a awful risky business now, I mean I put a ton of money in this crop and this dry weather's just killing me; you see what it's done. You can spend a whole lot of money real quick and you hope that you get it back. I don't know, sometimes I get a little disgusted with it. I get a lot more help from the government than I ever needed in the way of inspections and rules and regulations. You know, I'm just a one horse operator and I really don' know...

So, I don't know, but it's one of them things that when ya get to doing it ya just can't hardly let go of it, you know, I always, you say, "well, next year'll be better, I'll have a bigger apple next year, I'll have a bigger peach, or they'll do better next year." You know it's just kind of can't quit. That's it in a nutshell alright.

When you left, went off to the service, were working other jobs, did you think you were going to be coming back and being a part of this?, not really. It just all kind of happened. I went away...I spent three years, eleven months, and twenty nine days in Japan, I was an aurcraft electrician I really liked it over there, I stayed over there, and then when I got out I come back and I went to work in Montgomery, Alabama at Maxwell Airforce Base as a civilian electrician and that's where I met my wife. I stayed down there about a year or so, then I got an opportunity to go to work at Y12, they were hiring and I hired in there. I lived in Kingston, that's about thirty miles from here, for, I don't know, four or five years, and finally I bought this other piece of land behind us, bought another 40 acres back there and there was a place that wasn't fit for nothing, had trees and rocks, and I said "well, can I build me a house there?" and he said, "oh, sure." So I cleaned it off and built a house there and one thing just led to another and I'd come in, I'd change clothes, and go right to work. I mean I just kind of ended up, you know, I never really aimed to do it. I'm just one of them guys that I say "I'm tired of working, I ain't gonna do nothing"...that lasts about 30 minutes and I want something to do. I just kind of fell into it, you know. And I just can't hardly let go of it now. It just gets to you.

Over your time working with the orchard and with food, other than this dry weather, what are the biggest issues you've had to deal with?

Well...the biggest change over the last couple of years is prices in stuff I have to buy like diesel fuel, all the spray material, everything's doubling. It's awful hard for me now to keep up. The EPA will take this chemical away and then you've got to have something to replace it. Used to we had about three, four basic chemicals, you know, just like a shotgun effect, it just kind of done it all. Well, we done away with all that now and you've got to target pests, you've got to figure out which pest you're targeting and then you buy that chemical for that. And if you spray it at the wrong time it won't do no good. It's getting way too complicated for a feller like me. And the cost is enormous. Like spider mites. You get mites this time of year when it turns hot; it's a little red...spider mite they call it, and it eats on the leaves of your trees. What it does, it bronzes the leaf over, and that way the photosynthesis can't work and the sun don't feed the tree. Well you have to kill them little fellers. Well I bought some stuff the other day to spray for them, a 14 ounce jug, $315. It takes two jugs to spray this orchard. Like I said, you can put so much money in so quick and it's awful hard to get it back. But now having said that, when we first stared, we was selling apples for 6 and 7 dollars a bushel. Now the cheapest apple I've got's 20 dollars a bushel. But in retrospect I believe we were doing better back then than I am now. I mean, in money that you had left and what it would buy.

Are those chemicals your biggest input?

They are for me. That's where all your money goes and you'll have all these people tell you, say "we want organic stuff." You know, they'll say that. I had one lady come in here...I put bags in half pecks, pecks, and bushels. I musta had 20 half pecks of the variety she wanted...she went through every one of them. And you know, and apple, if you have a little stem on it, and I run them through a washer, well that little stem sometimes will roll against another and it'll make a little hole like you jabbed it with a pen. She would cull them. She finally got one bag that suited her, paid me $5 for it, and then wanted to know if they was sprayed with anything. Well anybody know, if you don't spray them you can't hardly tell it's an apple. It'll have sooty blotch all over it and, consequently you've got to use a certain amount of chemicals and that's your biggest cost right there.

Second biggest thing, I guess, is diesel fuel. We used to run all year here on about $600 worth of diesel. One fillup of the fuel tank now is $600. We used to pay 40 and 50 cents a gallon for it...I bought some the other day and it was $2.59. So you can tell.

We got that...and then the labor problem. I've had a ton of white folks help me here and most of them, they can't cut it. I mean, this apple picking, you put that bag around your neck and you work all day runnin' up and down that ladder. The only ones that really stay with me is Mexicans. And of course everybody's down on the Mexicans, but they'll work and they'll stay with you.

If I've got a worker, like if I hire you today and we're over there picking peaches, [the EPA guy] comes up, he's gonna want to see you health card. It's not really a health card, it's stuff like your mamma taught you, you know...before you use the bathroom you wash your hands, after you get done you wash your hands, you don't lick the peaches, you know, it's just simple stuff.

Them's the three biggest problems I've got.

What are the major outlets for your produce now?

This right here. When we first started, what really put us in business, we had a local owned grocery chain here. It was called White Stores. They had about ten, fifteen stores. Had one in Crossville, some in Knoxville, they were all within a 200 mile radius. And they had a central warehouse in Knoxville. We got to know the man and he told us, he said, "look...I'll buy anything y'all can raise if it's number one, and I'll pay you market price for it. But," he said, "if it's not number one I don't want it for any price." We honored that. We never took him a thing that wasn't just what he wanted. And back in them days we didn't have the cold storage, you know, you didn't have apples all year round like you do now; you didn't have cold storage. So we would come in early and we would wash and grade the apples...he'd give us an order: red delicious, golden, we'd box, bag 'em, and haul 'em up there, and he'd pay us market price, which was god money back then, eighteen, nineteen dollars a bushel. See we were earlier than the northern apples in Washington and Oregon...we was right on the front and we'd get the premium price. And that's really what got us rolln'. And then as time went on what happened to the White Stores is like everything else. Food City bought it out. Well, Food City is gigantic, you see, and that just shut all that off. Little guy like me, I can't sell to them. They want a tractor trailer load and they want it on Tuesday morning, they want it delivered in Virginia someplace. You know, this guy I ould haul a hundred, two hundred bushel up there on my old ton truck. That's how things is changing. All we do now, I just try to raise enough that I can retail out the door. I can't make it wholesale. These fellers that's got hundreds of acres they just cut the heart out of the price, I just can't survive wholesale. I just retail what we do right here and that's it.

Reggie Rowell was sitting at a picnic table under a big shade tree in front of his apple and peach orchard. On the same property there is an old one-story motel that used to be run by his parents before they got into orcharding. The motel is now just a testament to the past and has not had a guest since the 70's. There is also a warehouse that functions as the farm store where people come from far and wide to buy their apples and experience the farm.
Reggie is kind and humble. He's got a John Deere cap and overalls on and looks like he just quit working to talk to us. He's got 2500 apple trees here and 3 acres of peaches- something relatively new that he's experimenting with but the public seems to adore. As for the big issues he deals with as a farmer he tells us about government regulations that are set up with good intentions to protect the consumer as well as the farmer's investment, but end up backfiring much of the time. There are so many universal regulations that apply to every farm operation and it doesn't matter if you have 2,500 acres or 25,000 acres, you still have to jump through the same hoop. Most conglomerate farmers have more money than the one-horse operators so to speak, and can jump the hoops with less stress and financial loss. The little guys face bankruptcy when the government intervenes. And some of the regulations seem inane and ridiculous- like selling food that you process yourself to your neighbor. That is how business used to be done, however nowadays no matter how much your neighbor trusts you and wants to buy directly from the source to legally do that has become very difficult. With a non-processed food like apples Reggie can still sell them directly from his farm, but if he were to turn it into apple butter, enter the government and a slew of restrictions. This begs the question, why is government a necessary third party in personal relationships? Can't we support our neighbors anymore?

Reggie has noticed an interesting trend in the sales of his apples- people no longer buy apples by the bushel or peck; they buy what they think they will need for a day or two. Thoughts as to why this may be include the fact that not as many people know how or care to preserve the summer bounty through canning or freezing. And there is a real shortage of money in this strapped economy. Also, importing apples has really hurt the apple market here in the States.

Another number that doesn't compute well for the future of farming in the States is the number of farmers in our society and the age of those farmers. At an apple growers conference Reggie recently went to he looked around the room and realized every one of those farmers had grey hair. The more or less official statistic is 2 percent of the people in this country have farms, and the average age of those farmers is 58. Pretty close to retirement for most folks.

Labor is a difficult issue as well. Reggie says that though he would like to hire local folks they simply can't keep up with immigrant labor. All the issues that come with immigration are present on this orchard.
For all the hard things Reggie has told us about, there are really good things as well. After an episode of heart trouble a few years back his doctor told him he should find a relaxing hobby. Reggie thought about it and searched for something he would like and he finally decided that he'd "play with John Deere tractors." We were thinking he meant so that he could use them in his orchard, but in the true fashion of a hobby they are not for business. Every once in a while Reggie brings them all out of the barn and just fires them up for the pure pleasure of hearing them run. He smiles just talking about it, and before we go he gives us two peaches for the road, delicious and juicy.


Anonymous said...

We have bought apples from Reggie the past two years. There are none better anywhere. We mail them to family in Florida and last year sent a box to a friend in Texas of course the postage was more than the apples but oh they are good. I think his mother worked in the warehouse until last year. She was a delightful woman.

Anonymous said...

Came across this story looking for a phone number. Sort of interesting to read about how conditions pose problems for the grower. This is second year in a row, as I recall, that they've had no peaches. And these are absolutely the best peaches I have ever had.
Reggie...couldn't you find a half bushel somewhere? Could I pick them? Just none at all? Zero? It will take me a week or more to recover from this disappointment. Just will hope for a bountiful crop next year. And hope apples bend the branches to the ground.

Anonymous said...

I just finished making applesauce from a bushel of Rowell's apples...our best batch ever! We also managed to land a rare basket of peaches this year (they only had 10 baskets available), and they were better than the Georgia and South Carolina peaches sold at the roadside in our area. I wish I had bought every basket! Rowell's is a real gem, and we are lucky to have them here on the plateau!

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