Forty years ago, Henderson County general store owner J. H. Stepp decided to leave the mercantile trade in his small hometown of Dana, and try his hand at the apple business. He purchased a cousin’s orchard near Hendersonville, and three generations of the Stepp family—J. H. and his wife Yvonne, Yvonne’s mother Mrs. Mann, and children Sonya, Joby, and Mike—set to work tending the orchard, picking apples, and, until they built the first apple house, selling them out of the back of their car. The business grew steadily, thanks in a large part to the Stepps’ early decision to operate the orchard partly as a pick-your-own-apples farm, one of the first in the region. This allowed them to weather many of the economic hardships experienced by other apple growers and packers in the region, due to poor seasons and the importation of foreign apple concentrate for juice.
Hillcrest Apple Orchard is still operated by J. H. and his children, now with his grandchildren’s help. The seventy-acre farm is open to the public for picking and shopping during apple season, as well as for farm tours. The Stepps lead school groups on wagon rides around the orchard, stopping to pick apples, drink cider, and learn about the apple industry that has been so important to Henderson County for generations. The tours are offered, for a fee, to school groups, birthday parties, and other gatherings, and are geared for all ages.
Hillcrest Apple Orchard is open between Labor Day and the end of October, from 8 am to 6 pm Monday – Saturday, and from 9 am to 6 pm on Sunday. (To schedule a tour before August 20, call 828-685-3639.) Tours last about an hour and fifteen minutes. Reservations are required. Classroom programs are available for the elementary school level.