WASHINGTON – Apple production in the state is forecast at 37 million pounds this fall, up from last year’s drought-ravaged harvest but still sharply lower than production in the 1990s.
While seasonal fluctuations like the weather of the last two years can drive harvests up or down by a few million pounds, farmers and experts say apple growing in Maryland remains on an overall decline over the last three decades. There are fewer orchards on fewer acres producing sharply fewer apples.
“The apple industry is not half of what it was,” said Steve Weber, past president of the Maryland Direct Farm Market Association and owner of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Baltimore County. “We lost way too many farms.”
Since 1978, the number of farms growing apples in Maryland has fallen by more than half, from 697 in 1978 to 310 in 1997, according to the last census results published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Acreage in apple trees fell at roughly the same rate, from 6,723 acres in 1978 to just 3,221 acres in 1997. By 2002, that number had fallen to 2,400 acres.
And production of apples has decreased dramatically, from 88.5 million pounds in 1978 to 45.8 million pounds in 1997 and just 32 million pounds last year.
The 2003 forecast is up 5 million pounds from 2002 production, but weather conditions like last year’s drought and this year’s surplus of rain can result in fluctuations of a few million pounds from year to year, said Deputy State Statistician David Knopf.
Rinehart Orchards, has seen production decrease by more than two-thirds, from about 2.5 million bushels a year in the 1980s to about 800,000 bushels a year today. And the orchard has been taking acres out of production.
The reason, said John Rinehart, is because apples are no longer profitable to grow.
Lower wholesale apple prices over the past six years and rising taxes have made it difficult for wholesale apple farms to stay in business, said Henry Allenberg, chairman of the Maryland Apple Promotion Board.
He said only about 15 of the 35 apple farms in the state make the bulk of their income today just from selling apples. And the more successful farms usually market directly to the consumer, Allenberg said.
Christopher Walsh, professor of horticulture at the University of Maryland, said orchards retracted in the western part of the state in the 1980s, where many commercial orchards operated.
Orchards moved “toward the people,” Walsh said, away from rural counties like Washington to more populated counties like Frederick and Montgomery.
Apple farmers have also been changing the way they do business, by growing different fruits and turning to methods that allow them to sell more directly to customers, like farmers markets and farm stands.
This diversification is a 20-year trend among apple growers, but in the past five or six years the pace of change has picked up as wholesale apple prices have decreased and taxes have risen, said Allenberg.
“The trend is to much smaller, much more diversified, much more niche-oriented operations,” that grow berries, vegetables and stone fruits in addition to apples, he said.