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Central Virginia helps drive sixth-largest fruit crop in the nation

An estimated 180 million pounds of apples will be harvested in Virginia this year, making the commonwealth’s crop the sixth-largest in the nation, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The total apple crop equals about the weight of an aircraft carrier — a little less than 94,000 tons.

In Central Virginia, home to about 14 apple orchards, both geography and this year’s weather have yielded quite a bounty.

“The thing that really favours where we are is the topography of Nelson County. You have elevations of about 700 feet to 1,300 or 1,400 feet above sea level. Because of that, we get much better finishing of our apples,” said Michael Lachance, Nelson County’s agriculture agent.

Apple farms stretch along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia — from southwest to central and northern Virginia.

Ronnie Gross, partner at Gross Orchards in Bedford County, said he calls the region Apple Valley.

“We’re on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and that’s unsurpassed by any other because the soil type is rich and loamy, and we’re also protected by the mountains from the cold wind and spring frost,” Gross said.

“The mountains are like solar panels,” he said. For Gross, this year’s weather boon has yielded larger fruit than last year’s crop. “The quality is much better than it was last year.”

Gross Orchards has 70 acres dedicated to nearly two dozen varieties of apple trees. Gross is one of several multi-generational apple-growers in Central Virginia.

Gross wouldn’t reveal how many bushels of apples his orchard produced this year. But an apple tree can produce between two and eight bushels, depending on the size and type of tree, Lachance said. An acre, if tightly packed with trees, produces an average of 700 bushels per year, according to the Virginia Apple Growers Association. A bushel weighs 42 pounds.

Apple farmers don’t have the benefit of a combine or tractor. The trees have to be covered individually, one at a time, and pruned and picked.

“People are trying to bring the trees closer to the ground, so there’s less ladder time,” Lachance said, who added that as the industry grows, farmers are trying more to plant the trees closer to each other. “If you talk to an apple grower, they’re probably going to say labor is the significant challenge.”

There are 50 apple orchards in the commonwealth, according to the Virginia Apple Growers Association, but there are dozens more that are smaller.

“Everybody has a little bit different practice,” Gross said. “We have a huge following from Forest now, and I think a lot of it has to do with general cultural practices.”

In 2012, the apple crop was valued at $3.1 billion, up $0.3 billion from the previous year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Over the years, Gross said he believes the business trend toward healthy eating and locally supported produce has benefited his farm.

Lachance agrees. “I think that is one thing that is boding well for the industry, is that Americans are eating better,” he said.

Source: newadvance.com

Publication date: 9/23/2014


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