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W.Va. apple producers enjoy record year

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Last year was a good year to be a West Virginia apple farmer.

Good local weather and damaged crops in other states helped boost both prices and production for Eastern Panhandle fruit growers in 2012.

"Last year, business-wise, was the best year we've ever had," said Mark Orr, co-owner of George S. Orr & Sons Inc. orchard in Martinsburg.

Orr, a second-generation farmer who runs the 58-year-old, family-owned 600-acre orchard with his brother, Mike, said Eastern Panhandle orchards were well positioned last year for a record season.

"Maybe once out of 20 years you're the one with the good crop at the good price," Orr said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, West Virginia's apple production was up 36 percent last year. State growers harvested 91 million pounds of apples in 2012, up 24 million pounds from 2011.

That was a sharp contrast to the national trend, which saw a 4 percent decline in total U.S. apple production. It also came in spite of West Virginia farmers having 900 fewer acres devoted to the fruit last year.

Orr said some of the increase was due to the natural growing cycle for apples.

He said apples tend to grow in two-year cycles. They will often have a strong growing season one year followed by a smaller crop the next year.

"In 2011 we had a short crop, so naturally, without any frost damage, and under normal weather conditions, we were set to have a good crop (in 2012)," Orr said.

He said the warm winter in early 2012 helped the trees bloom early, accelerating the growing season.

The result was a record crop for the year.

"We had the largest crop we've ever had," Orr said. "We had 517,000 bushels. The best year we'd had before that was something like 430,000."

And quantity wasn't the only thing up in 2012. Prices shot up too.

Early in the season, growers in Michigan, New York and North Carolina all enjoyed the early blooming period caused by the warmer winter.

However, a late cold snap pushed overnight temperatures to the low 20s in those states, damaging the crop from the rest of the growing season.

The cold snap did not affect Eastern Panhandle growers the same way. Overnight temperatures did not dip to those damaging levels, so the crops stayed healthy.

The loss of supply from Michigan, New York and North Carolina helped lift apple prices for farmers last year.

"That's really what made us have a good year - supply and demand," Orr said.

According to the USDA, the average per-pound price for West Virginia apples was 25.8 cents in 2012, up 8.3 cents from 2011.

Orr said he was able to get great prices for apples used in juice, baby food and other processed foods.

He said during normal years, juicing apples sell between 8 and 10 cents per pound. Last year, he sold them for 20 cents.

Apples for processing or baby food typically sell for 10 to 12 cents per pound. Last year's prices were around 25 cents.

"It was double or more than double what we normally get," Orr said.

Also, the Eastern Panhandle did not suffer as much from stink bugs last year as they had in previous years. Though the pests did make a late-year resurgence, Orr said.

"The (stink bug) population was down through most of the year but for some reason they really populated late," he said.

That did cause some late-season apple varieties - Fuji, York and Granny Smith - to suffer crop damage.

While 2013 looks to be another short-crop apple year, Orr said he still expects to attract good prices for his fruit, particularly for apples used in processing.

He said the smaller 2012 crops in other states will translate into leaner inventories at food processors this year. A lack of surplus apples left over from 2012 means demand will be up in 2013.  

"The canneries won't have a lot of inventory that's leftover," Orr said. "Their storage will be low, that should be beneficial to us as far as the prices for the next year."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. 


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