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Drought affecting orchard profits

August 20, 1999

Mark Orr and his applesBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The drought that has strangled farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia could cut orchard profits by as much as 25 percent this year, according to several growers in the region.

While the drought has not hit orchards as hard as it has hit farmers the losses are substantial, Smithsburg-area orchardist J.D. Rinehart said.

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"If you run a store and someone steals 20 percent of your stock off the shelves you're going to feel it," Rinehart said.

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Now in the midst of picking this year's peach crop, Rinehart said peaches that have been as large as 3-inches round in the past are about 2 1/2 inches round this year.

Orchards have been able to withstand the drought better than other farms because the roots of trees can reach moisture hidden deep in the ground, Martinsburg orchardist Mark Orr said.

While a stalk of corn might have roots that reach only 16 inches into the soil the roots of an apple tree can suck moisture from as deep as 10 feet, Orr said.

"There isn't a lot of water down there but the trees can get what water there is," Orr said.

The fruit on Orr's 1,000-acre orchard of apples, pears, peaches and cherries is good sized and of good quality despite the drought, Orr said.

This year's peach crop is down 100 bushels per acre from its normal 400 bushels per acre and Orr expects the same will hold true when apple season comes next month.

Still, Orr feels fortunate compared to other farmers in the area.

"The drought hasn't been real bad for us," Orr said.

West Virginia has been declared a state disaster area because of the drought and farm losses in the state are expected to climb above $100 million.

To offset the potential drought damage, Pennsylvania orchardist Tawnya Tracey began knocking fruit off trees last month to improve the quality of the remaining fruit.

Production at her 125-acre orchard in Greencastle, Pa., will be down this year but it is too early to know exact numbers for her cherries, apples, peaches, pears and nectarines, Tracey said.

One of Tracey's biggest concerns is how the drought will affect next year's crop.

"Trees already under stress can have a harder time setting up fruit buds for next year," West Virginia University Extension Specialist Henry Hogmire said.

Orchards that have survived this year's drought could have a tougher time next year if the situation does not improve, said Hogmire, who works at the WVU Experimental Farm in Kearneysville, W.Va.

Two methods to improve the odds of success include thinning crops to reduce competition and killing weeds that compete with tree roots for water, Hogmire said.

Trees that go into the winter months already stressed could die from cold temperatures while fruit buds on stressed trees may also be killed by the cold, Hogmire said.

The drought has raises the possibility that fruit buds being formed now for next year may be fewer and weaker, which could result in fruit prematurely dropping from the trees, Hogmire said.

There is hope for this year's apple crop, especially if orchards get about an inch of rain a week over the next few weeks, Hogmire said.

"But anything we get will help," Hogmire said.

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