Henry Chiles Named America’s Apple Packer of the Year

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Henry Chiles
Henry Chiles

Henry Chiles, the patriarch of the family that operates Crown Orchard, has been named America’s Apple Packer of the Year by the U.S. Apple Association, the industry group that represents the nation’s growers. Chiles received the award August 21 at the association’s crop outlook and marketing conference in Chicago. The award was instituted in 1948 and is considered the top award in the apple industry.

Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, cited Chiles’ relentless optimism in announcing his selection. Allen said a normal thing to hear from Chiles is, “Don’t worry about it. We can make it happen. We can make it work.” Chiles was dubbed “Mr. Positive” in the nomination for the award. Allen also cited Chiles’ “countless hours working on industry committees.”

Formerly on the board of the association, Chiles also has had leadership roles in the U.S. Apple Export Council, the National Peach Council and the Virginia State Horticultural Society.

Chiles said he was completely surprised to receive the award. “I love the industry and I love all the people here,” he told the crowd who witnessed the presentation.

He was presented with a large silver bowl.

“The association does a lot of lobbying and trying to deal with industry problems,” said Chiles, whose expertise has caused him to be invited to testify before Congressional committees. “It’s a pretty good organization.”

“I’m trying to make the industry better,” he said. “You’ve got to tell the government about the industry sometimes. They have to hear from the grassroots.”

In 2013 America’s apple growers produced 248.6 million bushels of apples, worth about $2.7 billion to the growers. The top producing areas are Washington State, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and California. In 2012 Virginia ranked sixth in production. America is the world’s second largest producer after China. A quarter of U.S. production is exported.

The Red Delicious remains America’s favorite apple, but is it being challenged by the Gala, which will probably overtake it, Chiles predicted. “The Gala is a better apple, but Red Delicious is awfully good and has been number one for many years,” he said. Other popular apples are the Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and McIntosh.

Crown Orchard is now shipping apples to Russia, Cuba, India and Panama (his biggest export customer last year), Chiles said. About 30 percent of his crop is being exported. “The export market only wants the high-end apple,” he explained.

There used to be 60 packing houses in Virginia and now there are six, Chiles noted. The Winchester environs and Central Virginia are the state’s main surviving apple-growing areas. Virginia is producing about 5.5 million bushels a year, far below its production of 12 million bushels 10 years ago. “Our area had 30 to 40 orchards about 25 years ago,” he said. He expects Virginia’s current production to stabilize and perhaps not drop further, but it is unlikely to regain its earlier levels.

Apple sorting at the Covesville packing house
Apple sorting at the Covesville packing house

Chiles said his orchards typically produce 40 bins per acre (there are 20 bushels in a bin), so in a usual year Crown Orchards grows about 800,000 bushels.

“Some years you get more and some years you get less depending on rain fall,” Chiles said. He said all his peach orchards are irrigated and many of his apple groves are, too.

“For the most part we had a good summer,” he said. “It was cool and apples are still growing despite its being dry recently. Older, standard trees have good root systems.”

Chiles, 78, took over his family’s 300-acre orchard, begun by his grandfather, in 1953 at age 18 following the death of his father. Now five generations of the family have been commercial apple and peach growers. Chiles’ son Huff manages the scattered orchard operations and Huff’s son Henry is at Virginia Tech studying horticulture. The family’s orchards in Greenwood, Batesville and on Carter Mountain now encompass 1,000 acres and besides 15 varieties of apples and 30 varieties of peaches include cherries and some grapes.

“Everything I learned I learned the hard way,” Chiles said. “When you learn that way you never forget. It’s like farming. I’ve been lucky because I have had really good people working for me.”

The business now employs 100 people year round and hires additional labor during the harvest season. “My daddy said to me, ‘Anybody who works, take a chance on him.’” Both Huff and his son speak Spanish. “I’m the only one who doesn’t,” admitted Chiles.

Chiles’ primary customers are chain stores such as Walmart and Harris Teeter. The harvest season runs from June through November, and loaded trucks are constantly leaving Chiles’ packing plant in Covesville for supermarket warehouses. Chiles keeps some apples in chilled controlled-atmosphere storage facilities, which use ozone to “put the apples to sleep” so they are available for winter and spring sale. America imports apples from Chile and New Zealand in the seasons when American supplies are low.

All apples passing through the packing house are individually labeled with bar-coded stickers to ensure food safety. Boxes and crates are individually bar-coded, too. It is now possible to trace an apple from a supermarket bin back to the very person who picked it, Chiles said. “Every step is scannable.” Often apples picked that day are on the road by evening, all shipped in refrigerated trucks. “It’s an advantage for us that we can ship overnight,” he said.

The family opened a farm stand at their peach orchard in Greenwood 40 years ago and replaced it with a modern retail facility a few years ago. “It lets us see what the customer likes,” Chiles said. “We work hard at education and to explain the fruit business. Apples don’t grow on shelves.

“We see people are caring more about locally produced apples. Their taste—our taste—is a lot better. The chains are looking for local suppliers now. That’s been quite a change in the last five years.

“Labor is our big problem. Our work is hard work. Picking is hard and not many people will do it.”

In the East, America’s apple production is being severely challenged by the arrival of stink bugs from China five years ago, Chiles said. The bugs leave a residue in apples they feed on and this blemishes the apple. Supermarket buyers will reject apples that are not essentially perfect looking, he said.

“The quality of what we sell has to be exceptional now. Every chain only wants high quality fruit. Now we have to take the apple’s natural wax off it and put on an artificial wax [that makes it shine more].

“The insects are driving us crazy,” he said. “For years we’ve been trying to reduce spraying, but now we need to [spray] to produce useable fruit. The bugs dimple the apple and remove it from being top grade.” He noted that his grandson, ‘little Henry” in family parlance, is interested in studying natural pest control methods at Tech.

Called to testify on the problem to Congress, Chiles said the industry had no trouble raising federal research dollars because the congressmen were familiar with stink bugs, too. “They are pest to everyone,” Chiles said flatly. “You can kill what’s there today and tomorrow they are right back.” Stink bugs have not reached Washington State but have been found in 38 states.

Chiles said the stink bug population is naturally controlled in China by the presence of a predator wasp. The USDA is now experimenting with the wasp but has not released the insect yet, presumably because it is still unsure of how the wasp might affect other native American insects.

The rise of the hard cider beverage industry has been some consolation for growers as cideries are a market for less-that-perfect apples, such as misshapen ones. Chiles said he is now the primary supplier for Bold Rock Cidery in Nellysford.

Chiles said he spends 100 hours a week at the packing house. “It takes a lot to make little things happen,” he said.

“Yeah, I like the apple business.”

Now it’s shown it’s grateful to him, too.

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