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Posted September 19, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Far from the tree

Diane Kerns looks over a tree
Diane Kerns looks over a tree of York apples at Fruit Hill Orchard in Frederick County on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily

In a good year for apples, growers see drop in prices

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- This year's apple crop is a mixed bag, depending on which side of the equation you fall on.

For consumers, the picking's good. Nearly ideal growing conditions have produced an abundance of quality fruit, as cool, wet weather in the spring provided just enough moisture to sustain the crop during the drier summer months and allow it to ripen.

"It was almost a perfect season," said John Marker, of Marker-Miller Orchards in Frederick County, though he said he wouldn't mind another inch of rain to help some of the late varieties still on the tree.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast calls for 241 million bushels of apples nationwide this year, up 4 percent over last year's crop. Fresh apple production is expected to rise, and sizes will be larger than in 2008, according to estimates.

That's good news for area growers who sell their crop to retail stores or directly to consumers at farmers markets and roadside stands. But for growers whose crop is used for processing, prices are down significantly.

"Last year was the first year we had a decent year money-wise in a long time," said Diane Kerns, who manages Fruit Hill Orchard, one of Virginia's largest commercial orchards, with about 3,000 acres along Apple Pie Ridge in Frederick County.

Fruit Hill will sell almost all of its fall apple harvest -- about 1.2 million bushels -- to National Fruit Product Co. in Winchester and Bowman Apple Product Co. in Mt. Jackson, both of which released their pricing reports earlier this month.

A past president of the Frederick County Fruit Growers Association, Kerns said the figures were disappointing, but as a grower "there's not much you can do."

According to Spencer Neale, senior assistant director of commodity marketing for the Virginia Farm Bureau, Washington state, the nation's No. 1 apple producer, dumped an additional 20 million bushels on the market last year, and processors were able to build up cold storage stocks for this year.

"What that means is that they are not as eager for apples coming on the market for this season, and that will present price pressure for growers," he said.

In August 2008, apple growers in Virginia received 53 cents a pound. By mid-June, prices had fallen to around 19 cents a pound, according to VFB.

Neale said the poor economy is also affecting Virginia farmers, not only from a pricing standpoint but also in the area of agri-tourism.

"The good news is that we are seeing that people are traveling, and they are doing so close to home, looking for activities," he said. "That could be a good thing for the pick-your-own grower."

Marker is banking on that outlook. With 300 acres off Cedar Creek Grade in the county's Opequon District, including 10 acres of pick-your-own apples and a farm market and bakery, Marker-Miller Orchards is one of the area's most popular outdoor fall destinations.

Marker said so far about five of the orchard's 24 varieties have been harvested. The farm market offers fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, wines, jams, jellies and dressings, and the bakery serves up a variety of breads, cakes and cookies, as well as its signature apple cider doughnuts.

Marker-Miller will host its annual Fall Farm Fun Festival next weekend, complete with country ham sandwiches, wagon rides and a cow train for children. The farm is also gearing up for its Apple Harvest Festival on Oct. 10-11.

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