This is apple-growing country! More than 50 years ago, before the J.H. Stepp Jr. family came to the farm, the land was owned by a distant cousin, Polk Hill, who was known to let visitors glean apples at the end of his wholesale season. Each year, more and more people showed up.
J.H.’s family had previously operated the J.H. Stepp and Sons Packing House, General Store, and Hardware in Dana. Shortly after buying the farm, J.H. and Yvonne named the orchard Hillcrest.
Their first year on the farm, Yvonne and her mother, known as “Mama” Mann, sold the apples out of a car until an 8′ x 8′ stand was built. By 1975 the current Apple House was completed. The Stepps’ two sons, Joby and Mike, worked full time in the orchard and also took care of 200 rented acres. Many apples were still taken to the packing house, but the pick-your-own trade was growing.
J.H. and Yvonne Stepp are recognized as starting one of the area’s first pick-your-own apple operations. J.H. opened one of the first commercial packing houses in Henderson County. In 2010, he was selected as the United Community Bank’s Apple Farmer of the Year. The Stepps were also selected as the Henderson County Soil and Water Conservation Family of the Year. He was a board member for the Henderson County School Board, the Apple Cooperative, the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association, and the North Carolina Apple Growers Association.
J.H. and Yvonne Stepp
At his death in 2011 at the age of 91, he was the oldest active apple grower in Henderson County. Trying to fill his amazing shoes has been a lofty goal of his family.
Yvonne, matriarch of the family farm, died on June 19, 2008, and left a tremendous void in the hearts of her family and those who knew her.
Many apple growers in Henderson County depended on the juice and processing market to sell their apples. But, in the 1990s those markets began to disappear as plants closed or moved out of state due to the importing of foreign apple juice concentrate. Fortunately, Hillcrest Orchard had little dependence on these markets. J.H. said: “The hardest thing was waiting on people to come and pick, knowing you have nearly 50 acres of apples just hanging there.”
As time went by, the farm staff changed. The eldest son, Joby, married and moved to Virginia to farm, and Mike, the youngest son, took a job off the farm due to several years of low production from frost and freeze. With little or no fruit, the farm could not support all the families. Sonya, the oldest daughter, continued to help at the farm through the 2013 season. The business grew with a continued increase in people wanting to pick their own apples. Mike returned to the farm in 2003 and soon other changes were incorporated into the family business. School tours began in September 2003 with wagon rides offered on weekends. Mike’s wife, Rita, retired from teaching in 2004 and became farm tour coordinator.
The farm added Farmer Mike’s pick your-own-pumpkins allowing guests to stroll through rows of sprawling pumpkin vines to select the perfect one to take home. Mike and family have added pick-your-own sunflowers, more grape plants to the vineyard, apple cannons, a five-acre corn maze, weekend jump pad, and apple cider donuts along with other bakery items.
Any given day in the fall three generations of the Stepp family have been seen at the Apple House or in the orchard, sharing with visitors the farm life they love.