Area growers diversify to survive

By Katie Demeria

STEPHENS CITY — Dudley Rinker has always been all about apples — but now, he is, specifically, all about cider.

The third generation owner of Rinker Orchards, Rinker has cut back on his commercial apple production in recent years.

He has been in the business for almost 50 years, and has seen the market price for apples remain relatively stagnant during that time. But the production costs have increased.

“It went from being very profitable to just trying to make ends meet,” Rinker said. “It’s gotten tighter and tighter.”

This year, according to Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Mark Sutphin, apples all across the country are expected to do well, which could mean the market price may not be too high for Virginia farmers.

But, according to Rinker, there is one way farmers can survive: diversify.

Over the last several years Rinker has started focusing his efforts on expanding the orchard’s cider operation, which has been in place since 1986.

The orchard currently supports around 100 acres of trees. Five to 6 of those acres are devoted to his pick-your-own apples business, while the rest are cider trees.

The cider, which, according to the orchard’s website, has no added water, sugar or preservatives, is becoming increasingly popular.

Not only is it sold at the farm, but other local markets stock the drink, as well as some in the Washington, D.C., area and as far south as Charlottesville. Even a distributor in Richmond is interested in stocking the cider.

“We’ve built a reputation of quality flavor and consistency, and we work hard to keep that,” Rinker said. “People know what they’re going to get when they get the jug. They’re not satisfied with the other.”

By working with cider, Rinker has been able to become involved with various other burgeoning Virginia industries.

Interested wineries have built partnerships with Rinker, using his cider to make fruit wines. And growing craft brewers are purchasing cider in order to make varieties of apple beer.

“We’re picking up a number of cideries now, and that’s going to come in handy in November and December, when things are slow,” Rinker said.

So far this year, customers have visited the orchard to buy cider in order to make hard pumpkin cider and cinnamon spiced cider.

Things seem to be doing well, Rinker said. In fact, he is looking into getting a third cold storage unit to store the vast amounts of cider they press daily.

Focusing on making his own cider allows Rinker to work in what he knows while providing resources to other growing industries.

“We want them to grow, and we’ll grow with them,” he said.

Working with these flourishing industries also means that the growers Rinker purchases his apples from continue to do well, also.

“We’re working with the same four growers that we’ve worked with for a number of years,” he said. “They’re doing better because of us and we’re doing better because of them.”

To find out more, visit the orchard’s website at http://www.rinkerorchards.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com