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Eastern Panhandle Apple Orchards Fade Out of Business

Monday - 5/22/2006, 6:54am  ET

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(AP Graphics Bank)

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - Three decades of being a part of the Eastern Panhandle apple industry is about to end for Berkeley County farmer Garland Elliott.

With a low-profit margin in his orchards, Elliott said this season will likely be his last.

Elliott said overseas markets are flooding the apple industry, resulting in lower prices. Production apples, which are sold for use in applesauce and other products, are especially hard hit.

Elliott owns 20 acres of orchards and leases 200 more. Last year when he tried to sell his harvested apples, he was offered the prices he received in 1989.

"Why bust your butt when you know that you're just gonna' break even, when you can just sell out and you've got it made?" Elliott said.

Over the past five years, nearly 65 percent of the area's apple growers have gone out of business, said Billy R. Bennett of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Division.

In the past decade, apple production in West Virginia peaked at 3.9 million bushels in 1995 and surpassed 3 million bushels only once after that, in 1999, according to state agriculture statistics. In 2003, the latest year available, production was 2.1 million bushels.

"It's a major problem," Bennett said. "We're down to a handful of growers."

Small-time growers aren't the only ones being hit.

This spring, one of the area's largest growers, Winchester, Va.-based National Fruit Product Co., said it would cease apple production in southern Berkeley County.

Rick Pomeroy, the company's human resource director, said the company once grew its own apples to produce apple slices and applesauce. Now, it's more cost effective to buy apples from other companies, he said.

"We need to look at how to economize," he said.

National Fruit's Berkeley County production will be taken over by Fruit Hill Orchards, which owns or manages 2,876 acres in Berkeley County and in Frederick and Shenandoah counties in Virginia.

With companies like National Fruit getting out of the orchard business, Elliott is pessimistic about the industry's prospects.

"There's nothing in the future that can turn this thing around," he said. "The days of the great-big apple orchards are over."

Information from: The Journal

(Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)