Prime time for picking Rome apples Harvest: Another season ends at Mountain Valley Orchard, nestled between Civil War battlefields and subdivisions.

October 19, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

CAVETOWN -- Jason Tracey's fingers move through the zTC branches with the blurred precision of a jazz pianist, or a fifth-generation apple farmer. Both of which he is.

Thump, thump. Thump, thump. The red Romes drop into the bag slung from his shoulder. His right hand darts for the high notes, his left hand reaches for the bass. The bag fills.

Jason, 20, toured Europe last year with a 30-piece jazz band, performing in a dozen countries. Inevitably, he returned to the family business.

"There's a million musicians out there making nothing," he says, and last winter, apples sent the Traceys to Cancun for a winter vacation.

"But it's not just that," he says. "Apple picking is my favorite time of year. It's what we work all year for -- pruning, spraying, clearing, hauling."

For six or eight weeks every fall here on the western slope of South Mountain in Washington County, money really does grow on trees.

The denominations are Red Delicious, York Imperial, Golden Supreme; Stayman, McIntosh, Paradise. The banks are places such as National Fruit in Winchester, Va., where these Romes are headed, to be converted to White House applesauce. Mountain Valley Orchard is coasting toward the close of picking season. It will produce about 34,000 bushels this year, a small percentage of Maryland's million-bushel crop, which is concentrated along this ridge slicing north-south through Civil War battlefields and newly sprouted subdivisions. By now only the Romes remain to be plucked, medium-tart, fat, some pocked by a summer hailstorm.

Rich in history

Jason picked yesterday with his father, Leroy Tracey, 42, who manages the orchard; Jason's uncle, Rick Tracey, 36, a carpenter who moonlights here, sometimes literally; and a half-dozen hired hands, mostly Mexican nationals, who come north for the harvest.

They balanced atop tapered 20-foot wooden ladders and picked as if it were as natural as breathing.

Jason's mother, Sharon, was up at 4 a.m. to sell at a Hagerstown farmer's market. The day before she sold at Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore.

Jason's grandmother Jane Huff, matriarch of this 100-acre fruit operation, ran the retail market they opened a couple of years ago on Route 64.

It was her grandfather Jacob Hoffman who first planted the orchard in the middle of the last century.

"He was a gentle, kind man of German descent," says Huff, a white-haired widow whose only secret is her age.

Her build is slight, but she wrestles half-bushels of apples almost all day with indefatigable ease.

Devotion

Her first memory of orchard work is not a pleasant one. She was 8, and she sat atop a wagon hauling the sprayer and struggled to keep the two mules before her on course as her father followed, wielding the hose.

"All we had to spray then was sulfur, and you know what that smells like," Huff says.

"I couldn't get the mules to do what I wanted, so every few minutes my father would get mad and pull me down and put my brother, who was 5, up in my place. But my brother wouldn't be able to do it either, so then he'd put me back up."

All these decades later she strolls up a dirt road, framed by Romes and just-planted peach trees, peering through the branches for Leroy Tracey, and exclaims her devotion to the place.

"I love the springtime, when they're in blossom. I love to watch them grow. And when they're red like this, they're like a Christmas tree that's all decorated," Huff says.

A few rows away, Julio Alberto Parisi and his picking partner, Rogelio Paredes, both 29, are slowly filling a 20-bushel wooden bin. They'll get 65 cents a bushel.

Last week was their biggest week ever, each of them pulling down 1,160 bushels and clearing about $540.

Parisi, half-Mexican, half-Puerto Rican, works here year round. Paredes will return by Christmas to his wife and 10-month-old son in Veracruz, Mexico.

Uncertain future

To get the apples through to this rich harvest can be a heartbreaking ordeal, especially in the late frosts of spring.

Some years the Traceys call in helicopters from Cumberland or Harrisburg, Pa., to waft warm air onto the fragile blossoms for a cool $500 a hour.

One night last May, with the thermometer at 19 degrees, Leroy Tracey decided even the helicopters wouldn't help. In the morning he broke open some buds and found them black inside. About 10 percent of the crop, mostly Red Delicious, was lost.

Barring a sudden platinum recording, Jason Tracey says, he expects to inherit this good, hard, suspenseful life.

But who really knows the fate of the orchard?

Encroaching development

A neighborhood of $250,000 homes, with owners who commute over the mountain to Frederick, is growing adjacent to the orchard.

A sign warns prospective purchasers that the land is zoned for farming, which may mean "odors, noises, spraying and insects."

A peach orchard was taken down to build the subdivision, which was named, with the special logic of developers, "Orange Blossom Estates."

"They keep building up closer and closer," Jason says. "When there's no wind, you can hear the dozers from here."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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