It’s Feast or Famine for Apple Growers

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

MOHNTON, Pa. — Whether you’ll be able to get a good apple from a tree in Pennsylvania might just depend on where you’re at.

Daryl Martin, owner of Brecknock Orchards in Mohnton, Berks County, expects a good crop for his retail farm market.

“We have what we call a bumper crop. The quality is very good,” Martin said.

But travel to Dan Harner’s place in Centre County and it’s a very different story.

An early spring, coupled with a hard frost afterward, damaged nearly all of his 100 acres of fruit trees. Now, he’ll have to pay a high price to get apples for his own retail farm market.

“We lost all of our apples this year. We have no apples at all,” Harner said.

You might call the 2012 apple harvest a year of the haves and have nots.

For many growers, assuming they get a good crop, it will likely be a good year to make money, as prices for apples, especially those for processing and juice, are way up, due to shortages in neighboring states.

For others, it will be a struggle to just get through the season.

Not only did Harner lose his apples, including premium Honeycrisp, he also lost his plums and was able to pick just 10 cases of peaches.

“We’re kind of depending on pumpkins and tomatoes to kind of get us through the year,” he said.

He also won’t be able to make apple cider this season, something he’s become known for.

“The plans are made as you go along. Assuming that we have a good next year, we’ll be back in business,” he said.

Randy Brossman, owner of Brossman’s Orchards in Ephrata, a wholesaler that specializes in selling apples to bakeries, said he’s paying 30 percent more for apples this season compared with last because of a shortage of apples for pies.

“All of the apples are going to processing plants. There is such a high demand from the other states, they are coming in, buying everything up. We’re having a lot of trouble. There is apples out there, but we got to pay for them,” Brossman said.

Rob Crassweller, professor of tree fruit at Penn State, said the high prices are being driven by a shortage of apples in New York and Michigan, the second- and third-largest apple producing states in the country.

An early spring, followed by a few days of hard frost, devastated orchards in both states. New York’s Lake Ontario growing region, he said, got especially hard hit.

The Aug. 10 USDA Crop Production Report estimates this year’s apple crop in New York to be around 590 million pounds, 50 percent of what it was last season.

Michigan is worse off. The report predicts that Michigan’s apple crop will be around 105 million pounds, a 90 percent decrease from last season.

Pennsylvania, the fourth-largest apple-producing state, is expected to produce 481 million pounds of apples, a slight increase over last year.

Washington state produces the most apples by a large margin, 5.7 billion pounds forecast for this season, an increase of nearly 300 million pounds over last season.

But the local apple shortage is starting to show up in prices.

Crassweller said apples for juice processing, which normally go for 8 cents a pound or lower, are averaging 10 to 15 cents a pound or higher.

“It impacts everything. It ripples on up. The price levels are set by processing. If they raise prices, everything goes up,” Crassweller said.

Dave Cox, director of raw fruit at Knouse Foods in Peach Glen, a grower cooperative that makes Lucky Leaf and Musselman’s brand apple sauces and other products, said apple prices on average are 150 percent higher than they were last year.

Apples for processing, which normally fetch between 8 and 12 cents a pound, are now going for 26 cents a pound or higher. Juice apples, he said, are ranging between 22 and 24 cents a pound, much higher than what they normally go for.

“It’s a seller’s market. There are lots of buyers here. The fine print is what gets you in trouble. Some guys have specific standards to follow,” he said. “Apple growers are going to hit the lottery this year.”

Adams County growers, as a whole, will likely be the ones benefiting from the good prices.

Tara Baugher, tree fruit Extension educator with Penn State, said optimal growing conditions have resulted in large apples with lots of color throughout most of the county, even though some areas were hit with hail damage as a result of storms that came through in August.

Chilly nights in September and October, she said, are good for apples because it promotes high sugar content.

“It’s going to be a very high quality crop,” Baugher said.

Lee Showalter of Rice Fruit Co., said he’s seen a good crop from the 30 or so growers the company works with in Adams County.

He anticipates taking in between 1.8 and 2 million bushels of apples this season.

“I think the harvest is going fairly well,” Showalter said.

He said growers dodged a bullet in March and April as the very cold temperatures that devastated orchards in the north didn’t quite reach Adams County growers.

He said growers should be selective in what apples go for processing since prices are so good.

“We were very concerned about the earliness of the season. But overall, we’ve come away with a good crop I think,” he said. “We’re anticipating a very good fresh market.”

Dan Boyer, owner of Ridgetop Orchards in Bedford County, said the high prices have saved his growing season.

A storm that came through on Aug. 9 damaged roughly 40 percent of the 400 acres of apples he grows.

Most of those apples would normally go for fresh market. But since processing prices are so high, he has no problem sending them out for juice or apple sauce.

“Fortunately, there is a great demand for processing apples, juice apples in this case. We just harvested them,” Boyer said. “We’re just making the best of the situation we are in.

“Had this been years in the past when juice was 6 cents, 7 cents, this would’ve been a lot harder to take,” he said.


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