Nivens Apple Orchard
Don and Katherine Nivens bought their apple orchard in Spartanburg in 1974. For the last 41 years they’ve maintained the property, building it up and out to include hayrides, a corn maze, and enough cider to quench any thirst. Friends and family from the community have come to celebrate the delicious fruits of their labor season after season. Now, over four decades later, the pair are looking to retire and embark on their next great adventure. We spoke with Don Nivens about what’s next in the life of a farmer.
So, you were a pilot, once upon a time? When you first opened your orchard you were doing both?
Don Nivens: I was a captain and a flight instructor. I’d fly during the day and work on the farm at night. Katherine ran it while I was away. In 1994, I had to retire from flying and then I got to develop the farm full time.
That must’ve been hard work, doing both jobs at once.
It was. It was hard, but I was young then, I didn’t mind it one bit. I’d fly all day, work all night, then fly again the next day. I’d have the guys I was teaching run the flight and I’d sit back and have a cup of coffee and shut my eyes. That’s how I did it. I got rest when I flew!
What kind of physical toll did working like that take?
Pruning the trees was always a big job, but we quit doing that ourselves years ago. We got somebody else to do it. Getting in and out of a truck is a problem. Well, anything is a problem for old people! When I retired from flying, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to sit out here and do nothing but this?’
And did Katherine agree?
I’ll tell you what—that was my secret weapon, that girl. All these years, she’s put up with me, I don’t know how she stood it.
When it comes to cooking with apples—what’s your secret weapon?
A lot of people don’t realize you need a variety of apples when you’re cooking with them or making cider. You want at least three varieties to give you sweetness, crispness, and the aromatics.
What’s your favorite kind to use?
I like Winesap. Of course our Golden Delicious are great to bake with, even a Granny Smith will make a good pie. Pink Lady are my favorite.
What has been your favorite thing about your orchard over the years, besides having all the apples your heart desired?
The people have been the best part. We’ve had great experiences and we’ve met lots of people. Every child in the last 30 years that went to school in this area has been out to see us. And their parents. We evolved into a family-oriented place. And that’s what kept us in it. I think the most rewarding thing is all the goodness we’ve tried to create. I don’t charge people to come here. It’s free. They can bring their kids, their families, play on the equipment, look at the animals, and all for free. It doesn’t cost them anything to just come and sit in a rocking chair and watch their kids play.
How did you keep your business afloat then?
When I quit flying I thought I was going to go broke. I never would have thought we’d make the money we’re making now. I never thought I’d get out of debt. But I did. Only took me five years. We got the hayrides going and after that it took off. And that was a pleasant surprise. We made money that first year and we’ve had an increase in sales every year since, roughly 20 percent. Even when the country had economic hard times, we had a five percent increase.
And you still want to give it all up?
I’m 82 years old and there’s a time and place for everything and I think this is our time to quit. If we stayed here, we’d have to get bigger. I’d have to grow it, but I’m cranky now, I never was a cranky person before. I guess I didn’t think I’d ever get old. But it snuck up on me. If I were a young man, I’d take this place to the moon.
So, what’s the retirement plan then?
Just doing nothing. I know I’ll get bored, but maybe I got enough life left in me I can build Katherine a new house. Pay some debts to her. The dream that we had when we were younger might not work out.
That dream was…?
That we’d drive across the whole United States. But I don’t think my wife trusts my driving too much—she sits and squeals in the passenger seat. We just wanted to see every place together. I’ve seen most of it, but it’s been no fun without her. You just don’t enjoy something without your mate. I just wish there was someone to carry this on. I don’t know how we could’ve done it any better, but we did a lot better than we thought we would.