by Rebecca Jackson

Over the years, the Gross family has tapped into the Lynchburg, VA’s rich vein of history and agritourism with outdoor festivals in April and September, PYO apples and peaches, vegetables grown on site, live Bluegrass music, an artists’ village, value-added products and more.

A sign welcomes customers at the entry to the orchard store. It is one of two owned by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Gross and son Ronnie, who manages the farm and also enjoys a thriving career in real estate.

One of two commercial orchards in the county, with 60 owned and 30 leased acres,“we produce 17,000 bushels of apples a year,” said Gross. Apples that fetched $6 a bushel in 1980, when Ronnie Gross graduated from high school and entered the business, now bring in approximately $36. Bulk fruits are marketed as “Eastern Apples” through a broker and Gross donates 120 tons of fruit to the Society of St. Andrew, a charitable organization that deploys church, civic groups and FFA volunteers into the orchard to gather fruit for soup kitchens and food banks.

“We donate the fruit and it keeps the orchard clean,” Gross noted. “Seventy percent of our fruit goes through this store, where my Dad is at the helm, steering it.” Gross and his staff encourage fruit sampling and frequently gift visitors with a bag of fruit to take home or munch on the road.

The Gross family, like many producers, has diversified to remain competitive, with their spring and fall festivals, as the site of an annual fundraising 5-K, and offering educational school and club tours. They purchased an abandoned church across the road and transformed it into a community center and wedding venue, plus opened the family’s 19th century farmhouse into a weekend and vacation getaway. They also operate a distributorship and offer trees for sale.

With six full-time employees, the family produces over 30 types of apples, including traditional favorites and a limited quantity of antique varieties. The mountains, Ronnie Gross explained, influence and moderate winds, humidity, temperatures and other environmental factors conducive to the production of apples introduced in the mid-19th century and peaches, first planted in the 1950s.

“We have a great location, with the mountains sheltering the orchard and moderating wind flow. The mountains act like big buildings and solar panels, and also create turbulence. The sandy soil also grows great peaches. We’ve had a lot of successful cropping here in Apple Valley on the face of the Blue Ridge.”

In the early years, fruit was all hand-picked by part-time laborers, who put in an eight-hour day at a now-defunct local rubber manufacturer, then headed up to the orchard to work until mid-evening. Most tasks (except the PYO part of the operation) are mechanized today, from picking to sorting, cleaning and packaging.

“Everything today is so specialized, from harvesting to maintaining the trees,” which have a productive life of 25 years, said Gross, noting that trees nearing the end of their productive cycle are replanted. “We have U-pick, local help from the part-timers…everyone has an important place here.”

Oftentimes, it is hard to find enough labor, a chronic problem many farmers have today, according to Gross.

“I don’t know where this industry is headed,” he said. “Lack of labor has closed a lot of orchards. It’s a major issue…But it’s very fulfilling to see people who came here as kids coming back with their own families.”