At this time of year, the pies in Julian are made with fresh apples from Julian orchards. The Julian Pie Company gets its apples from Crown Orchards in the Farmer's Road area north of town. Apple Alley and Mom's get theirs from Apple Lane Orchards across Highway 78 from Julian High School. Apple Lane is owned by Tyler and Janet Johnson, who are new to the apple business. Tyler worked for a telecommunications company in Sorrento Valley before becoming a full-time apple farmer a year ago. Janet was an executive at a credit union in San Diego and still works for them on a partial basis.
"Don and Mary Hall started this business around 1993," says Janet, standing in the open-beam kitchen of her farm house. "He was an engineer for..."
"General Dynamics..." the tanned, curly haired, goateed Tyler interjects.
"They were selling whole apples on site," Janet resumes her story, "and they thought, 'There must be something more we could be doing.' So they went to the pie companies, Mom's and Apple Alley, and said, 'If we could provide you with cored, peeled, sliced apples and delivered them to you, would you be interested? It would save you space and you wouldn't have to have an employee doing it.' These places don't have storage space, so they were having to continuously drive to San Diego or have apples shipped in. But Don, when he built this place, put in two walk-in cold-storage units."
When the pie shops expressed interest, Don Hall bought machines to sort, peel, and slice apples as well as a cider press and installed them all in a barn in the middle of his orchard. In the meantime, the Johnsons, who lived in Jamul, were growing tired of long commutes, and they wanted to raise their two children in a small-town environment.
"So we bought a cabin up here four years ago," Janet continues, "and we never spent a night in it. We finally said, 'The only way we're going to be here is if we just move up here.' So we bought a house and moved here."
For a while, the Johnsons had an even longer commute "down the hill" into work every day. But in 1999, Tyler's Sorrento Valley company went public and stock he had bought at 33 cents a share topped out at $400. "We wanted to use that money to buy a business and get out of what we were doing," he says.
While they were looking, "Our realtor asked us, 'If you had to make a wish list of what you'd like, what would it be?' " Janet recalls. "I answered, 'Oh, a house on a hill, walking distance to town, with a working orchard.' Our realtor said, 'That's almost impossible.' I said, 'Well, if you ever find one, let me know.' Four minutes later, he called, 'You're not going to believe this, but I found you exactly what you asked for.' Don and Mary Hall were almost 70, and they were ready to retire and travel. But they weren't going to sell unless it was to somebody who cared intensely about providing the apple service."
The Johnsons met with the Halls that same day. "He asked us," Janet recalls, " 'If you buy the place, will you promise to keep the apple business going?' We told him, 'We want to buy this place because we want to continue the apple business.' So he sold it to us."
No contracts were signed to that effect. And no contracts with the pie shops were signed over from the Halls to the Johnsons. "There were no contracts," Tyler explains. "It's all on the handshake system."
"The old-timers up here are that way," says 68-year-old Ray Meyer, who has worked 38 years in the local orchards. He's the dean of apple farming in Julian. "Business is done on a handshake. You tell them you'll do something, and they tell you what they'll do, and it all gets done."
Meyer sells his fruit out of a roadside stand along Highway 78 just west of town. He lives in a rented house across the street. He grows apples on four separate orchards in the Julian area -- in the Wynola and Farmer's areas -- none of which he owns. But he doesn't exactly rent them either. "At the end of the year," he explains, "if I make some money, I pay them. It's up to me. It's all handshake agreements."
Though he has no formal leasing agreements with his orchard owners, Meyer says that by maintaining their orchards, he maintains the value of their properties. "See, the critical thing is, if you have an orchard which you neglect and it goes to pot, your land value goes down. The only thing to do then is get a bulldozer in and push it out. But if you maintain it, you're maintaining their land value."
In an average year, Meyer sells around 5000 one-bushel boxes of apples. Each box is 38 to 40 pounds. They sell between $13 and $20 per box, depending on the variety of apple. The higher end of the price spectrum represents what Meyer calls antique apples. "I've got some old varieties that you can't buy in the store," he explains. "I've got Northern Spy that I'm almost sold out of. They're known better on the East Coast; wonderful, tart cooking apple. Some people love to eat them. I've got a few Arkansas black, Mammoth Black Twig, a few Pippins yet. Pippins used to be a big apple, but they're going obsolete now. They used to be the green apple you got in the store. Now Granny Smith is taking over. I've got some Lady apples, which is another antique variety. At first I thought, 'What am I going to do with those Lady apples?' But they sell. They're a little flat apple, a little bigger than a crab apple, kind of bland-sweet. And they keep forever. They're very hard and crisp, and they keep and keep and people love them. People like something different. Hindsight is better than foresight, and, when I look back, I think I should have planted and grafted a lot more of these antique varieties."
A year into their life as apple farmers, the Johnsons' main source of income is the peeled and sliced apples they sell to Mom's and Apple Alley in Julian and to Nanie's pie shop in Idyllwild. Tyler Johnson delivers to the first two in his Toyota pickup. The owner of Nanie's picks theirs up every morning at 5:00 a.m. The pie apples are shipped in plastic-lined tubs, which hold about 18 pounds. The cost: "A dollar a pound," Tyler says. "It was 80 cents a pound, but we raised it to a dollar to cover our SDG&E bills." Two walk-in coolers are their main power draw.
The Johnsons also sell whole apples and cider to area retailers and directly to customers who drive onto the farm. And they recently opened Apple Mountain Trading Company -- in the old Santa Ysabel post office -- where they will retail their apples and other growers' apples. In off-season, from late winter to late summer, they bring in apples from Utah to supply the pie shops.
Expenses on the farm include electricity, one full-time and three or four part-time employees, pesticide, and gas for the delivery truck. "Right now, this place doesn't even pay for itself," Tyler says. "That's why Janet wants to grow. Don Hall didn't need it to pay for itself. He had Navy retirement; he had General Dynamics retirement. For him it was a hobby. But our goal is to get this orchard to pay for itself and for us to earn a living."
Roger Sonnenberg manages a 30-acre orchard on Bailey Creek Ranch. He's worked in apple orchards "on and off for 15 years, the last 7 continuously." Those 7 have been at Bailey Creek, where he grows certified organic apples. "Being organic gives you a completely different perspective," he says. "You're oriented toward the soil. You're farming the ground and making the ground healthy, trying to build up the soil and getting the soil in balance with the bacteria, the beneficial fungus, the nutrients, all the way up the scale to earthworms. You're making the soil alive again. In turn, you promote healthy growth on top."
The chief challenges of organic farming, Sonnenberg explains, are "pest control and disease control, using the tools that are allowable for organic production. Conventional pesticides will give you residual control and help with disease. With organics, you will be in the orchard more often, doing more spraying."
Scab and mildew are the diseases that affect organic apples. The pest that apple farmers worry about is the codling moth. "It produces the infamous worm that you find half of after biting into an apple," Sonnenberg jokes.
The spray he uses to combat the destructive worm is called kaolin. "It's a clay," he explains, "that is pulverized into a powder that goes into my spray tank. It's a white powder, and it turns the whole orchard white. It makes the environment uninhabitable for the bugs that want to do damage to your trees and your fruit. If you looked at it under a magnifying glass, you would see that the little codling moth worm is like a bulldozer trying to push his way through the clay to look for a good spot to burrow into the apple. What happens is he wastes his energy pushing through the clay, gets tired, falls off, and dies."
It's an effective means of controlling the critters. "When I first made the transition into organics," Sonnenberg says, "I probably had 70 percent worm damage. That means 70 percent of the apples had worms in them. That was six years ago. Then I started to see results [from clay spraying], and now I have less than 1 percent damage from codling moth."
Sonnenberg sells all of his fruit wholesale -- "Ninety cents a pound is the lowest price I get for apples" -- though he's searching for a roadside retail spot. (Bailey Creek Ranch, in the Wynola area, doesn't front any paved roads.) Jimbo's Market in Escondido and Del Mar buys his produce. And a specialty-food market in Los Angeles buys crab apples from him. "I guess they use them for Thanksgiving decorations, and they make crab-apple jelly out of them," he says. Orfila winery, which bought the old Manzanita Ranch on Highway 78 between Julian and Santa Ysabel, will be selling Sonnenberg's fruit, and Ray Meyer has bought Sonnenberg's crop of peaches to sell at his roadside stand. "I'm not a marketer," Sonnenberg admits. "I have excellent fruit, and I say, 'Here, buy it.' I think the fruit speaks for itself. When people taste it, they like it. But I don't have the time nor the desire to go around and peddle my fruit. I don't have that in me."
Asked if he's making a profit, Sonnenberg answers, "We're still paying off the installation costs." These include planting trees, a drip irrigation system, trellising, and an eight-foot deer fence around ten acres of young trees. But he insists that profit is the goal and says, "We're inching our way toward it. It will be coinciding with the year that we are actually able to retail our fruit out of our own stand."
Though he says he makes a living out of it, Meyer also says that the expenses involved with growing apples -- trees, digging irrigation wells, packing equipment, a packing shed, boxes, insurance, electricity, deer fences, tractors, spray rigs, and pickup trucks -- combined with the rising cost of land in Julian make it difficult, almost impossible, to start a new apple farm and have it be profitable. "I get people calling me every year," he says. "They want to go in the apple business and put in an orchard. But the sad fact is, the way it is in Julian these days, there's no way you could buy a piece of land, put in an orchard, and make any money. It can't be done anymore."