Bill Carson likes to say it’s easier to put somebody on the moon than to grow apples along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And he should know.

As an engineer at IBM in Huntsville, Alabama, Carson helped create the software used in the Apollo missions.

But these days, Carson tends apples at the Orchard at Altapass in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, a 2,000-tree oasis on the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains. His nonprofit orchard is a tourist destination where visitors buy apples and dance to Appalachian music.

Music at the orchart

“We got ourselves to the moon because we could control all the important variables,” Carson told UNC-Chapel Hill Research Associate David Salvesen. “Here, there’s no way to control that weather.”

And lately, the weather has been even more troublesome than in the past.

Carson’s land, which snakes for two miles along both sides of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, is the remnant of a huge, 100-year-old orchard that once produced 125,000 bushels of apples in a season. Some of the original trees still grow on the property.

Carson’s sister bought the orchard in 1995. He says for many years, the apple crop was successful. But that’s changing. “Four of the last six years, we’ve had weather-related crop failures,” he says.

One of the culprits: unusually warm weather in March. “If March gets warm earlier than usual, the apple trees think it’s springtime, and they will start their development,” Carson says. “And if the weather is cold enough when those blossoms are exposed, they can wipe out the crop. But that was never a problem until now in the last few years.”

In fact, these so-called “false springs” – exceptionally early warm weather followed by a hard freeze – are growing more common across the country as the climate changes.

Carson adds that he’s had so much bad luck with weather that the orchard lost its farming insurance, because he couldn’t show five years of sustained harvest. He says he was told, “Your farm isn’t suitable for raising apples.”

“After 100 years, it’s hard to buy that,” Carson says. “Something is changing.”

Bill Carson: Apple Grower from Climate Stories NC on Vimeo.

This video is part of “a multimedia storytelling project about the daily lives of North Carolinians experiencing climate change,” funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Produced by David Salvesen of the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, it is reposted here with permission.

More Resources
The Orchard at Altapass
Saving the Good Stuff: Bill Carson at TEDxHickory
Why You Shouldn’t Hope for An Early Spring
National Climate Assessment: Agriculture

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