WINCHESTER — The apple harvest began a few weeks early this year, but area growers aren’t complaining.
This is a year to savor.
Good crops in Frederick and Clarke counties, coupled with large-scale damage to orchards in other states, should make this year’s harvest one of the most profitable ever as buyers compete for fewer apples.
“You can’t make applesauce out of air,” said a pleased Bev Byrd, Clarke County’s last major apple grower.
It’s all welcome news to area orchardists such as John Marker of Marker-Miller Orchards and Farm Market in Frederick County.
Selling apples has been a roughly break-even affair the past 15 years, Marker said as he drove his truck through his 225 acres of orchards just south of Opequon.
He’ll do better than break even this year.
A special year
Other states’ losses are proving to be local apple growers’ gain.
Orchards in New York, Michigan and North Carolina were hit hard by below-freezing nights in April which devastated buds that had formed during a rare hot- weather stretch in the previous month.
Michigan, for example, usually produces 23 million bushels of apples annually. This year, the harvest is expected to bring in just 3 million bushels.
New York, the second-ranking apple-producing state after Washington, is expecting to see its crop roughly cut in half, Marker said.
And while Washington’s production is expected to be up, it is too costly for buyers to transport apples from the Pacific Northwest to the eastern United States, according to Diane Kearns, treasurer of Winchester-based Fruit Hill Orchard Inc.
Buds in the northern Shenandoah Valley also bloomed early, but the trees survived a spring cold snap relatively unscathed.
That means Virginia — the country’s No. 5 apple producer — is a top spot for buyers scrambling to shore up their supply of apples — and they’re offering dramatically higher prices to do so.
Local growers don’t mind the attention at all.
“It’s a year of firsts,” Byrd said. “[It was] the first time they bloomed in March, and it’s the best year ever financially.”
Byrd is anticipating 85,000 bushels from his 200 acres — a roughly 120 percent increase compared to the last three years, he said.
The prices are even better.
He said in a typical year he will receive 8 or 9 cents per pound.
This year he’s expecting 25 cents.
The prices are expected to be “off the charts,” Kearns said.
Fruit Hill plans to harvest about 1.1 million bushels from the 3,000-plus acres the company owns or manages.
Kearns said almost every buyer is courting Fruit Hill for its apples, but the company plans to sell most of its crop to Winchester-based National Fruit Product Co. — although she was unsure about the prices National Fruit is offering.
David Gum, National Fruit president, did not reply to a request for comment.
Applesauce and juice
The majority of apples grown in Virginia are sold to processors who produce applesauce or juice — 73 percent in 2011 and 65 percent in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) field office in Richmond.
Three companies typically buy apples from local growers — Mount Jackson-based Bowman Apple Products, National Fruit and Peach Glen, Pa.-based Knouse, Kearns said.
Marker plans to sell to Knouse, as he usually does — even though the prices may be slightly lower than other offers.
“It’s a co-op,” he said. “We’re a member.”
Depending on the size and variety of the apple, Knouse is offering 8 to 12 cents per pound as an advance. The cooperative then doubles that amount and spreads the payments from January to June.
Although Byrd has sold to Knouse for the past six years, this year he plans to switch to Mott’s, a member of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
Mott’s, which has its apple processing plant in Williamson, N.Y., hasn’t been an active buyer in the mid-Atlantic states in recent years, but the company has re-entered the area market this year due to the damage to crops in other states.
Mott’s is offering to pay 25 cents per pound, according to a letter sent to growers.
“I’m going to take the money,” Byrd said, adding that he would be willing to stick with Knouse if the company bumps up its prices.
Virginia Storage Services on Valley Avenue will likely be filled with 500,000 bushels of apples in the coming weeks, said Kearns, who serves on the board of directors of the storage facility.
Winchester Cold Storage on Loudoun Street is also expecting a packed house, according to general manager Brian Beazer.
The company has two locations — the other is in Jefferson County, W.Va. — that offer controlled-atmosphere units, which remove oxygen from the room and replace it with nitrogen, putting the apples to sleep until they’re ready for use.
The two facilities combined can store up to 1.7 million bushels, Beazer said.
Apple of Virginia’s eye
Virginia is expected to produce 230 million pounds (about 5.5 million bushels) of apples this year, up from 220 million (or 5.2 million bushels) in 2011, according to NASS figures.
According to the last NASS agricultural census in 2007, Frederick County had 5,600 acres of apple orchards, with 590 acres in Clarke County.
NASS is conducting its five-year census this year.
No shortage of workers
By Wednesday, the Frederick County Fruit Growers’ labor camp on Fairmont Avenue was housing about 325 workers, primarily from Jamaica, Mexico and Haiti, according to camp manager Cindy Burke.
About 75 more workers were expected to arrive in the days ahead to help with the apple harvest. The camp typically houses 400 workers for the season, she said. No extra workers are expected this year.
Cooper Ratliffe arrived from Jamaica Monday and is picking apples at Fruit Hill.
Ratliffe, 42, said this is his 10th time in the area for such work.
He is here with a H-2A agricultural worker visa that allows U.S. employers to bring in foreigners to perform temporary agricultural work.
Federal law requires growers to give U.S. workers priority when hiring, but according to area orchardists, Americans are not enthusiastic about the work, which is labor-intensive.
Marker said he has never had an American last more than two or three days picking apples.
Once an employee from one of the national agriculture trade groups based in the Washington, D.C., area came to Marker-Miller Orchards to pick apples, he said. “He wanted to see what the work was like.”
The man — about 30 years old and in good shape, according to Marker — picked apples during the morning shift from 7:30 a.m. until noon.
But when Marker returned to the orchard after eating lunch, his wife said the man had gone home.
“He was so tired. He’d had enough,” Marker said.
One of the toughest parts of the job is maneuvering a 20-foot ladder that weighs more than 60 pounds around a tree and from tree to tree, Marker said.
The pickers also carry a bucket slung over their shoulders and resting at stomach-level — it weighs about 50 pounds when filled with apples, Marker said.
“It’s not easy,” said Ratliffe, a farmer in his native Jamaica.
But the money is helpful for him and his wife and two children.
Most of the orchards pay the pickers $9.70 per hour.
As of Thursday, $9.70 equaled 866 Jamaican dollars — about enough to pay for dinner and breakfast for himself and his family, Ratliffe said.
While growers are happy about this year’s crop, they are also voicing hope that this year’s apple shortage could be beneficial for next year.
“Next year should be good,” Byrd said. “Buyers can’t build up their inventory this year.”
— Contact Conor Gallagher at email@example.com