Growing business is shrinking

County's largest orchard is for sale; 400 acres of it going to anonymous buyer

County's largest orchard is for sale; 400 acres of it going to anonymous buyer

February 24, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

Ten years ago, anyone driving along U.S. 30 between St. Thomas and Fort Loudon, Pa., would see orchards lining both sides of the highway.

Today, said Donald Kessler, director of the Penn State Extension Office in Chambersburg, Pa., the view is open fields.

The orchards are gone, mostly because of economics, Kessler said. Growers are not being paid as much as they were a decade ago, while their costs have gone up.

Kessler didn't know how many growers have gone out of business or how many are left.

On March 21, Franklin County's orchard industry will take its biggest hit yet when Mountain Brook Orchards on Apple Way, at more than 1,000 acres the county's largest orchard, goes up for auction. It's been in the same family for three generations.


Apple Way runs north off of U.S. 30.

The reason for the sale is more personal than economic. Jerry Edwards, 69, owned the business until he semi-retired and turned it over to his daughter, Jill Edwards Hughey, 35, 11 years ago. Now Hughey, a professional geologist, wants to get out of the business to spend more time with her two young sons and move on to other interests, Edwards said.

Hughey was not available for comment.

L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corporation, said foreign growers are also affecting the nation's orchard industry.

Edwards said American growers produce about 250 million bushels of apples a year while those in China turn out about 750 million bushels.

Apple, peach and cherry orchards, once the backbone of agriculture in the county, are going by the wayside, Ross said. Increasing pressure from developers and imposing government regulations are also factors. "It's to the point where it's become difficult for growers to make an adequate living," Ross said.

The J.P. King Auction Company Inc., of Gasden, Ala., one of the largest real estate auction firms in the country, will sell off Mountain Brooks holdings - land and buildings. The equipment will be auctioned off by Gateway Gallery Auction of Chambersburg the same day.

Both Edwards and Kessler hope some of the property will be bought by another grower who will keep the orchard going.

Edwards said about 400 acres won't be included in the auction because it is being sold to a real estate agency that is representing a so-far anonymous buyer.

"I don't know who's buying it or what they plan to do with the land," Edwards said.

Edwards' father, Dr. Dwight M. Edwards, a Chambersburg dentist, started the orchard in 1946 as a hobby farm.

"He and my mother, Violet A. Edwards, were raised on farms in Indiana, Pa.," Edwards said. His parents died 57 days apart in 1985, he said.

"They had four children and they wanted to teach us the work ethic by working on a farm," he said.

Dwight Edwards bought a 160-acre farm, turned it into an orchard and put his children to work on it.

"I took a liking to it, but my three siblings didn't," Edwards said. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in horticulture, spent two years flying cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force, was discharged in December 1957 and took over the orchard business Jan. 1, 1958. By that time, it had grown to about 650 acres, he said.

Over the years, Edwards bought more land, built a packing house, storage facilities large enough to hold 300,000 bushels of apples, three migrant worker camps capable of housing up to 100 workers at harvest time, installed apple grading equipment and irrigation systems and built up the business.

Also being sold are nine trucks and five homes, three of which are rented to orchard employees.

Edwards sells apples to Knouse Foods, a growers' co-op in Adams County, Pa., and to big chains like Walmart, Food Lion and Publix grocery stores.

The auction brochure, which will be advertised in trade magazines and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, said the property is a "prime location for fruit planting or residential development."

It will be sold in 13 individual parcels ranging in size from 1.9 to 151 acres. Buyers wanting to continue in the orchard business will buy as many tracts as needed, Edwards said.

Mountain Brook Orchards has 11 full-time employees, and Edwards hopes another grower buys the business. "We're trying to make this a turnkey operation where a grower can come in and take it over," he said.

He chose to sell in March to give him time to sell off his current crop and allow time for spring tree pruning should another grower buy the business.

Asked how he would feel after the auction, Edwards said he's doing what his father told him to do back in 1980 if no one in the family wanted to continue.

"He said, 'sell it,' so I guess I have his permission," Edwards said.

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