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The Mid-Atlantic tree fruit industry is shrinking under pressure from housing developments, as city commuters build luxury homes in rural areas.

“We’ve lost a lot of land to development,” Dr. Jerome Frecon, agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension in New Jersey, told members of the International Fruit Tree Association at the annual conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “When land’s $25,000 to $95,000 an acre, there’s no way you’re going to farm it.”

New Jersey has 7,000 acres of peaches, and Pennsylvania has 3,475. The region has a good climate for growing peaches, but per capita consumption is flat or declining. Frecon said the industry might not have done the best job of getting a quality product to the wholesale market and that could be why consumption is flat.

Prices to the growers leveled off around 1995 and have declined in the last three years to about three cents a pound wholesale, Frecon reported. Meanwhile, production costs have increased and squeezed out the profit.

“Pesticides and fertilizers have gone out of sight, particularly in the last year,” he said. “Spray oil has gone up dramatically. It’s tough to stay in business and grow peaches, particularly if you’re selling them through the wholesale market. We’ve lost a lot of good orchards.”

Peach growing is labor intensive, and the product is perishable and seasonal. Labor costs have risen, with New Jersey’s minimum wage at $7.10 per hour.

“The magnitude and scope of the peach industry will never be what it was 25 years ago, particularly in New Jersey,” he said. “The history and infrastructure have been lost. Many families have sold their businesses.”

But, he added, “There will always be some peach growers in the Mid-Atlantic because tree-ripened and properly packed and handled peaches are truly a special eating experience. We have the climate to grow good peaches, and we’re close to major consuming markets.”

Challenges that growers face in growing peaches include increasing damage from wildlife, such as woodchucks and deer, as their habitat is lost to development. The voracious marmorated stink bug, found in eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, is also a problem. San Jose scale, which killed most of New Jersey’s orchards a hundred years ago, is making a comeback, Frecon said.

Overall, the industry is transitioning to using plastic bins, though some growers pick tree-ripe fruit into smaller baskets or boxes. Some growers sell some fruit in field containers as “fuzzy peaches,” but fruit for the wholesale markets is defuzzed. An increasing amount of fruit is sold direct to the
consumer through farmers’ markets. U-pick is declining in popularity while agritourism is increasing,

Plum pox virus

The plum pox virus has taken peach orchards out of production in Pennsylvania.

The virus, a devastating disease of stone fruits in Europe, was first discovered in the United States on Encore peaches in Adams County, Pennsylvania, in 1999. Although plum pox usually doesn’t kill trees, it can result in serious crop losses by rendering fruit unmarketable due to poor taste and deformities, and by causing premature fruit drop.

A total of 1,599 acres of peaches, nectarines, and apricots have been removed in Pennsylvania.

Phil Baugher, vice president for marketing at Adams County Nursery, said some growers replanted with apples. Adams County has 23,000 acres of fruit, with about 90 percent of that acreage being apples and peaches. Most growers are second-, third- or fourth-generation.

Fresh apples have been shipped from Pennsylvania since the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Adams County now produces three million boxes of apples and one million boxes of peaches. It has more than 30 retail farm markets, and there’s a growing market for fresh fruit sold in bulk containers from the retail markets. Roadside markets continue to increase, while the processed apple industry is shrinking.

York Imperial, discovered in the late 1700s in York, Pennsylvania, has been the most important apple variety because of its long storability.

Increasing land values, driven by housing developments for commuters from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pose a different kind of threat that might have a significant effect on the industry, Baugher said.

“With the rapid increase in land values and the downturn in the fruit economy, many farmers are attracted to development opportunities. I believe that the future of the fruit industry in Adams County will be defined in the next 20 years. There will be several major factors that will impact the ability of this industry to survive.

“The first, and most important, is, will we be able to attract the best and the brightest of the next generation. There are many opportunities for young people today, and many are choosing not to enter into production agriculture.

“Innovation will be critical as we step up to meet the challenges of tomorrow,” he added.

Another issue is whether fruit growing will be profitable enough to provide the capital necessary to invest in modern orchard systems. Baugher recalled that during the 2004 IFTA conference in Bolzano, Italy, Dr. Hermann Oberhofer told how growers in the South Tyrol area found it difficult to make a profit during the 1960s because of their high production costs. But ultimately, the economic crisis, which lasted for four years, had a healthy effect on the apple industry.

“It woke them up and made them realize they had rested too long on their laurels,” Baugher said. “We do face an economic crisis, and it’s oftentimes an economic crisis or crisis like plum pox virus that we have to respond to in some way. The response we have will be a defining factor as we move into the next 20 years. South Tyrol has invested tremendous capital in modern orchards and today is a vibrant and healthy industry.”

Many people think it’s critical that the Adams County industry begin an aggressive retooling program in order to compete in today’s global economy, Baugher said, and this will require significant capital investment.

Both the fresh and processing industries will need to develop innovative production practices and marketing partnerships, he said.

The Adams County fruit industry has the advantage of close proximity to some of the most affluent consumers in the world, Baugher pointed out.

“People are willing to pay for good produce.”