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Competition, costs threaten W.Va. orchards

June 26, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Hurt by increasing costs, foreign competition and dwindling profits, the once booming orchard business in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle is seeing dramatic declines.

Since 1987, the number of acres being used to grow apples has decreased from 15,330 acres to 8,000 acres, a drop of nearly half, according to Henry Hogmire, extension specialist for the West Virginia University Extension Farm in Kearneysville.

Peach orchards made up 3,340 acres in 1987, but only about 1,300 acres are planted with the crop today, Hogmire said.

The figures are statewide, although 95 percent of West Virginia's orchard business is in the Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan and Hampshire, he said.

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Many growers are selling their land for development. With prices dwindling for their crop, it is more profitable to sell the land to developers, Hogmire and other experts said.

"All you have to do is drive around here and see what is happening. It's sad," said Hogmire, whose facility conducts fruit-growing research and assists growers with different aspects of the business.

"This is something we're seeing all along the Eastern Seaboard," said Jim Cranney, vice president of the U.S. Apple Association, a McLean, Va.-based organization that lobbies for orchardists on Capitol Hill.

A variety of issues are to blame for the decline in the orchard business, including competition from countries like China and Poland, Hogmire said. Foreign producers are exporting apple juice concentrate at far lower prices than U.S. growers offer, mainly because they are receiving subsidies from their governments to offset costs, he said.

U.S. growers do not get subsidies. "It's not a level playing field," Hogmire said.

Local growers also face tough competition from Washington state, Cranney said.

Washington state has a consistent climate that is good for growing, and farmers have invested extensively in irrigation systems, something that many West Virginia growers haven't done, he said.

As a result, Washington state growers are able to produce the large yields of fruit required to satisfy huge grocery chains like Wal-Mart, Cranney said.

"I compare us to buggy whips. We're getting to be obsolete," said longtime Gerrardstown, W.Va., orchardist John M. Miller III.

Miller, a third-generation orchardist, is debating whether he will put out any new trees to keep his operation going. Miller and other growers say there are not many young orchardists to take over the business because they are finding more lucrative jobs in other fields.

Miller also complained about too many governmental regulations, a shortage of migrant workers and increased congestion.

Miller said there is "traffic everywhere" in Berkeley County, which makes it difficult to move his machinery up and down the road.

But for all the problems, there is promise, Hogmire said.

Experts believe the Panhandle's orchard business will drop to a certain point, then stabilize.

At the same time, a number of growers have diversified to increase profits, such as growing Christmas trees, pumpkins, strawberries and sweet corn, Hogmire said.

Hogmire said he likes what has been done at the George S. Orr and Sons in Arden. The Orrs are selling their own line of apple butter, fruit baskets and other merchandise at a fruit market on their property.

Berkeley County grower Jim Seibert said he is selling his fruit directly to processors, eliminating the need for costly packing lines and cold storage facilities.

"We believe it is going to come back," said Seibert, who has planted 120 new trees on his orchard along W.Va. 45 west of Martinsburg.

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