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."