Apples, sweet corn anchor operation

Once his feet were firmly on the ground, Wade Shultz remade the family farm into a year-round economic enterprise. A former commercial pilot, Shultz turned the old dairy farm outside Athens, Tenn., into an apple and vegetable-producing haven.

He wanted an economically sound venture but also one that could put a solid footing under the entire family. He wound up with a farm that retails most of what it produces through its own market.

Fourteen apple varieties grown on 1,000 trees form the heart of the operation. Sweet corn ranks second in value on the farm. The Shultz family also grows green beans, tomatoes, squash and potatoes.

“The emphasis has been to try to make a living farming and we've been able to do that the past several years by diversification and by running an on-farm bakery that makes fried pies, apple butter and things like that,” Shultz says.

“When I got serious about full-time farming about 1990, I saw that we needed to get into value-added production. We weren't going to make it by selling commodity products. We needed to control the apple or whatever it was all the way up the chain.”

Tradition couldn't stand in the way. The farm has been in Shultz family hands since 1901. Early on, it produced corn and supplied crossties to railroad shops in the area. When Wade's 81-year-old father, Jim, was a boy, cotton was a big crop. With time, that faded, and Jim began dairying.

By the late 1970s, with Wade flying for a living, labor problems beset the dairy farm. Jim dispersed the herd and got in the beef business. By the time Wade was ready to farm full-time, it was obvious that beef couldn't provide the economic basis he needed.

Though the farm now has about 500 acres in three locations, only about 25 acres of trees and vegetables produce most of its income. The family still runs a small beef operation but attention is on fruit and vegetables.

Apples particularly grow well at their location. “It's tougher to get the color here than in some areas. But we don't lose apples to the freezes like they do in the North Carolina mountains. Our apples' taste can compare with anybody's. All over Tennessee, the apple cosmetics might not be able to compare with some states. But we grow good apples people like to eat,” Shultz says.

Though they produce a number of varieties including Red and Golden Delicious, Winesap, Rome, and Granny Smith, Shultz is proudest of the apple varieties not easily purchased in most stores. Buyers are eager to get the old-time Arkansas Black apple as well as the Hardy Cumberland, which was developed by the University of Tennessee.

“Hardy Cumberland is a semi-tart, clean-tasting apple. My wife, Cecileia, calls it pristine. That's one of those fancy words I don't use much. But it's an apple that has no after-taste. People really like it,” Shultz says.

All those apple varieties help them diversify. “We wound up with early and late apples. We usually have a new variety coming in every week during the season. We also have a cooler where we're able to keep them,” Shultz says.

During the fall apple season, numerous school groups tour the farm. The Shultz family runs an organized tour, explaining the apple business in detail.

In early summer, sweet corn grabs center stage. They take orders for sweet corn as much as six months prior to that. Wade and his son, Russell, rise early and pick the corn when sugar content peaks. Scheduled buyers begin arriving at about 8 a.m. to get their corn.

“We have corn customers from as far away as Knoxville (about an hour's drive). They come back year after year after year. They're pretty serious about it, and want it just right. The corn has to be top quality stuff. We never keep any corn overnight. If we have any left over, we give it to people close by here. To be a success in the sweet corn business, you have to be committed to producing quality,” Shultz says.

The push for quality carries over to the farm market's bakery. With help from Cecileia, a nutritionist with the Monroe County Health Department, Wade learned how to make tasty fried pies, apple butter, jams, jellies, cider, stack cakes, dried apples and other goods sold in the market.

“It's part of the value-added concept,” he says. “We want to take it all the way to the final product.”

The Shultz Farm Foods market is open from mid-June, when sweet corn and vegetable harvest begins, until Christmas, when the farm runs out of apples.

“Our objective is to make a living and to grow something that will help feed people,” Shultz says.

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