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."