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Documentary suggests ways to save orchards

March 13, 2001

Documentary suggests ways to save orchards



A Philadelphia filmmaker's decision to do a documentary on the problems of fruit growers in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia highlights their dilemma, but also suggests a couple of possible solutions. We recommend that anyone concerned about sprawl and the loss of open space watch for it when it airs in April.

Fran McElroy, who owns Shirley Road Productions in Philadelphia, said she chose the Panhandle because she wanted a rural community to profile for her film, "Our Food, Our Future."

Filming took place last September. McElroy spent days interviewing Hampshire County growers facing encroachment from Washington, D.C. area developers. One grower, Gary Shanholtz, told McElroy how vacation homes and subdivisions have surrounded his family orchard. That development contributed to a total loss of 5,000 acres of farmland between 1992 and 1997.

Is there any hope of preserving the industry? Yes. Shanholtz and five other growers formed a group called Highland Harvest, which markets their crops to Gourmet Central, a Romney company that makes jams, salsas and apple butter.

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For Shanholtz, it means the difference between selling his apples for $1.60 per bushel wholesale and $10 a bushel for apples Gourmet Central uses to make apple butter.

Cooperative arrangements that allow growers to market their products directly are one possibility, but the work of managing an orchard is something some growers' children want no part of. For those who want to sell out - and for those who'd like to get into the trade even though they're not in a position to inherit an orchard - there may be another solution.

What if local governments purchased such properties, added deed restrictions to bar development, then sold them to people who wanted to farm or grow apples for a living? The first buyer would lose some money, since the price of the property would drop if development were barred. But if government or some private group isn't ready to sacrifice anything, then the rural way of life will be gone before we know it.

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