Lindsey and David Butler began a recent fall Saturday readying Sky Top Orchard for however many visitors were willing to brave the wet chill.
The wooden marketplace overlooking 110 acres of Appalachian farmland was well-stocked — 14 of Sky Top’s 22 apple varieties were ripe; jellies, spices, and baking mixes lined the shelves; and workers busied themselves peeling and coring apples that would soon flavor cider, pies and donuts.
Trees on the mountain were tinged yellow, orange and deep red, and the Butlers said the color change typically makes autumn their busiest time of the year.
“When the weather is perfect, we’re full and we have eight people checking folks out and there’s an hour line for donuts,” Lindsey Butler said, her short blonde hair parted down the middle and drawn back into a ponytail to reveal a kind face.
But the weather was far from perfect, the sprawling stand never exceeded half-full and it took less than five minutes to get donuts.
“We’ve had a lot of rain this year,” her husband David Butler mused, wearing a white baseball cap.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, nearby Asheville, N.C. has already gotten 6.65 inches of rain this October — 3.74 inches above the monthly average.
But Lindsey Butler, standing behind the counter in a green-strapped apron embroidered with the farm’s logo, chose to look on the bright side.
“We’ve gotten where some of our customers choose to come on rainy days so they can escape the crowds. They brave the elements; they bring their ponchos — but they know they don’t have to wait in line for donuts,” she said with a smile and knowing nod.
“And you know, when we first started, this would’ve been a very busy weekend.”
Starting Sky Top
Sky Top got its start in 1967, when David Butler’s father moved to Flat Rock, N.C. and planted a crop of apple trees atop Mt. McAlpine.
David Butler was in high school at the time, and the orchard was very different from the ‘u-pick’ attraction it is today.
“Back then we sold them to the grocery stores, to the processing plants,” David Butler said.
David Butler soon left to attend college at the University of South Carolina, where he met his wife.
“One thing led to another and we ended up here,” he laughed.
The couple married in 1980 and has spent the past 35 years working on the farm full-time. It was their idea to switch the business to a ‘u-pick’ orchard in the early 1980s.
Lindsey Butler said it didn’t feel right to pick the apples prior to ripeness. She said they now use a special tool to make sure the apples are sweet enough for customers to eat them on the spot.
“We’re an agri-tourism business now. We’re an entertainment farm,” David Butler said, though Sky Top still sells a small percentage of their crop to specialty food stores like Whole Foods and Fresh Market. “People come to pick their own apples, to visit, to play on our playground, to picnic in our picnic area. It’s become quite a family place.”
Lindsey Butler said she’s enjoyed opening the farm up to people.
She stood behind the counter most of the day, calling customers to her, weighing buckets of apples, and making casual conversation before sending people away with a southern, “Thank you so, so much. We appreciate it and hope you enjoy those.”
Lindsey Butler estimated Sky Top gets between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors each weekend from when it opens at the beginning of August to when it closes in mid-December
“Since we’ve been here 30 years, I think quite a few people know us,” David Butler said. “We’ve got about 20,000 fans on Facebook.”
Sky Top recently landed on both the Huffington Post’s and USA TODAY’s lists of the top 10 apple orchards in America.
David Butler says there are a couple reasons why.
“One of the best things is you’re coming out to a beautiful mountaintop,” he said. “That’s number one.”
And number two? Well, it’s the apples.
“Picking your own apples is a thrill and a novelty,” he said. “Not many people get to a farm anymore.”
But when the sun isn’t shining, the views are hazy and visitors are less likely to go out in the orchard to pick.
What to pick
The Butlers said their most popular products are fresh apples, apple cider and apple cider donuts.
Apple cider is pressed from fresh apples at Sky Top twice a week, without added sugar, artificial flavors or preservatives.
The cider is made from a blend of 10 apples – six tart and four sweet – that changes throughout the season as different varieties ripen.
“Early in the season it’s sweeter. Best is mid- to late-season because you have that depth and tartness from the plethora of different flavors,” the Butlers’ son Jason Butler said. “I don’t like things that are sweet sweet.”
The whole stand was thick with the cider’s autumnal aroma, which paired well with the rustic glow of white lights strung from the rafters of the wall-less stand.
People sipped the cider in frozen slushies or steaming hot as rain continued to batter the roof.
Sky Top didn’t begin making donuts from the cider until 2007, when a harsh freeze damaged much of the year’s crop. Costing $1 for one or $10 for a dozen, the desserts have been a top-seller since.
“We have a few little secret ingredients like KFC,” David Butler said of the family recipe.
Emily Volker, who has been coming to Sky Top since she was a kid, gets the cinnamon- and sugar-dusted treats every year.
“I don’t know. They’re just so good. I’ll eat at least six,” Volker laughed.
A family affair
David Butler said much of the staff had been friends of the family for years, and that they enjoy working the 100-day season.
“If I’d have known there were places like this, I wouldn’t have gotten a college degree,” said Denny McBride, who was tasked with directing the slow trickle of umbrella-toting pickers to the best rows of apples.
David Butler said 25 people pitch in during the season and about five stay on yearlong to prune the trees and do repairs around the farm.
“I tell people it’s like having a 100 acre yard,” David Butler said. “There’s equipment to repair. There’s orchard work to do – pruning, fertilizing. We have quite a large operation so getting everything in order after the season takes a few months.”
The Butlers have three adult children, spread between Durham, Asheville and Washington, D.C.
“As of now they’re off on other adventures,” David Butler said. “I hope someday one of ’em or all of ’em will come back and help us on the farm.”
The Butlers’ oldest daughter got married in the orchard in May.
“She said, ‘I want to get married here,’” Lindsey Butler recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh gosh, why would you choose the orchard?’ So we tried to talk her out of it. But we had the wedding here in May and we rented a big tent and we had perfect weather. It was perfect.”
Lindsey Butler said her favorite memories at Sky Top are those she’s made with family.
“I think of my children growing up here,” she said, tearing up. “And I get emotional, but I shouldn’t.”
Jason Butler, the couple’s only son, was in town from Durham that Saturday.
He said in the fall he tries to visit every two to three weeks.
“My daughter’s 3 and she loves it,” Jason Butler said. “I think someday she’ll want to live up here. Just because there’s so much to do here – farm animals and hayrides and tractors and lots of wide open space that we don’t necessarily have in Durham.”
He said his favorite part — aside from eating freshly picked apples — is the view.
“I’m driving along 40 and I see the Great Smokies in front of me and there’s just no better feeling,” he said.