Fruit growers punished by the weather

Md. peach harvest expected to be down 15% to 20% this year

Frost, hail and drought all hurt

Apple profits also lowered by damage from `russet' and Chinese imports

August 19, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

SMITHSBURG - This is not going to be a good year for Maryland fruit farmers. Peach growers expect their harvest to be off 15 percent to 20 percent, and operators of apple orchards might fare even worse.

"This has been the most devastating season I've have ever seen," said Hank Passi, a peach farmer who has run Eagle's Roost Farm and Orchards in Cecil County for 20 years. "My peach harvest will be off about 50 percent."

Farmers in other parts of the state are expected to fare better, but he predicted that Maryland's total peach harvest will be down 15 percent to 20 percent.

Passi is chairman and horticulture representative of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 24-member gubernatorial farm advisory group.

He blamed the smaller crop on a number of things, all related to the weather.

He said a late frost destroyed 8 percent to 9 percent of the state's peaches in the spring when the trees were in bloom. Since then, the heat and lack of rain have significantly reduced the size of peaches, reducing volume.

"This is the biggest loss we have ever had," Passi said of the orchard he operates with his wife, Silva. "We will lose about $75,000 on our peaches this year."

At Allenberg Orchards, just outside this town in northeastern Washington County, owner Henry Allenberg is suffering a similar fate.

He blames nature for the damage to 80 acres of apples that will cost the family-run farm more than $60,000 in revenue this year.

He strolled through a dusty orchard containing hundreds of apple trees before stopping at a Stayman covered with fruit. To the untrained eye, it looked like the making of a bumper crop. The apples hung from branches in clusters of five, six and seven.

But a closer examination revealed serious flaws from a late frost that significantly reduced the value of the apples.

"This is what we call russet," Allenberg said as he pointed out patches of rough, brownish skin on the apples. "You can't sell these apples in the fresh-fruit market. The American consumer has come to expect cosmetically perfect fruit. These apples can't compete on store shelves where there are 20 other things saying `buy me.'"

Other apples had small, dark holes in the skin, a result of a hailstorm in late June.

"Produce buyers don't want this," said Allenberg. "They want uniform fruit that has eye appeal."

As a result of the frost and hail damage, Allenberg and many other apple growers will be forced to sell a higher percentage of their fruit this year to processors, who will use them in making applesauce, juice and pie filling.

Consequently, the growers will take a big income cut. Allenberg said apples sold in stores as fresh fruit wholesale for about $6 for a 42-pound box. Those going to processors bring about $3 a box, about $1 less than the cost of production.

Allenberg said 20,000 bushels of apples that would usually go to stores will be used for processing this year. "That's a loss of about $60,000," he said.

He said farmers are being paid 40 percent less for their processing apples than they were five years ago, partly because of imports from China that have played havoc with the U.S. market.

In recent years, China has surpassed the United States as the world's largest apple producer, churning out four times as many, said Allenberg, who is president of the Maryland Apple Promotion Board, a trade group representing state growers.

He said China has taken over major market share in places such as Singapore and Taiwan that were formerly served by Washington state, which produces about half of the apples grown in the United States.

"When Washington state lost these markets, they began to ship their apples into this region, and that has significantly reduced prices," Allenberg said.

The majority of Maryland's apples and peaches are grown in a 10-mile strip along the border with Pennsylvania, from the Susquehanna River to Hagerstown.

Connie Byler-Hsu, a program specialist with the Maryland Farm Service Agency office in Columbia, said the farm bill passed by Congress this year contains no provision to help financially strapped fruit growers.

She said Congress is considering a financial-aid package to help farmers across the country suffering from drought, flood or other natural disasters.

If funding is approved, she said, Maryland fruit growers will be covered the same as farmers growing other crops in the state.

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