In Berkeley County, West Virginia, Carla Kitchen and her team is in the process of hand-picking nearly half a million pounds of apples. In a normal year, Kitchen would sell to processors, but not this year. For the first time in 36 years, she had nowhere to sell the bulk of her harvest. And she wasn't the only one.
Across the US, growers were left without a market. Due to an oversupply carried over from last year's harvest, growers were faced with a game-time economic decision: Should they pay the labor to harvest or simply leave the apples to rot?
Christopher Gerlach, director of industry analytics at USApple, says the surplus this year was caused by several compounding factors. Bumper crops have kept domestic supply high. Exports have declined 21% over the past decade, a symptom of retaliatory tariffs from India that only ended this fall. Weather also played a role this year as hail left a significant share of apples cosmetically unsuitable for the fresh market.
While many growers in neighboring states like Maryland and Virginia left their apples to drop. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was able to convince the United States Department of Agriculture to pay for the apples produced by growers in his state, which only makes up 1% of the national market. This apple relief program purchased $10 million worth of apples from a dozen West Virginia growers. Those apples were then donated to hunger-fighting charities across the country from South Carolina and Michigan all the way out to The Navajo Nation. A nonprofit called The Farmlink Project took care of more than half the state's surplus – 10 million pounds of apples filling nearly 300 trucks.