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Diversification a must for apple growers

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Ben Wenk is a seventh-generation grower at Three Springs Fruit Farm. Located in Menallen Township, Adams County, the farm grows a diverse selection of apples.
Ben Wenk is a seventh-generation grower at Three Springs Fruit Farm. Located in Menallen Township, Adams County, the farm grows a diverse selection of apples. - (Photo / )

Ashmead's Kernel is one of Ben Wenk's favorite apples.

With a rough, greenish-brown skin, Ashmead’s Kernel may not be the most attractive variety, but beneath the surface, the fruit is packed with flavor.

Wenk, a seventh-generation grower at Menallen Township, Adams County-based Three Springs Fruit Farm, prefers the apple for himself, and the heirloom variety is grown throughout the country for niche markets like roadside stands and you-pick farms. It originated in Gloucester, England in the 1700s.

The U.S., however, has produced more Red Delicious apples than any other variety for more than five decades. But connoisseurs like Wenk feel its taste leaves something to be desired.

“I always say, if you’re looking for an apple to use a model for painting, look no further. If you’re looking for one with flavor, the Red Delicious isn’t what you want,” said Wenk.

Consumers appear to be agreeing as the mild-sweet Gala is about to take a bite out of the Red Delicious’ half-century reign, according to the U.S. Apple Association, an industry trade group.

Red Delicious has been the most-produced apple in the U.S. for decades. But it is expected to lose its top spot this year. Here are the projected rankings of most-produced apples for 2018:

1: Gala
2: Red Delicious
3: Granny Smith
4: Fuji
5: Honeycrisp

Source: U.S. Apple Association

The shift stems from increased production of newer varieties of fresh-consumption apples, according to Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs for the association.

Collectively, the U.S. grows 240 million bushels of apples each year and the wholesale value of the crop totals close to $4 billion annually, according to the U.S. Apple Association.

When it comes to staying competitive in an industry of an estimated 7,500 commercial apple growers in 32 states, diversification is key.

Three Springs Fruit Farm grows 50 varieties of apples on 250 of its 450 acres. The farm has a staff of roughly 30 and it distributes to roughly 10 farmers markets a week. Apples are also cultivated for processing, including some for its cidery, Ploughman Farm Cider. The cidery uses Spitzenburg and Golden Russet apples from the farm and select apples with a more bittersharp and bittersweet profiles, like Dabinett and Stoke Red, said Wenk.

The farm continues to diversify by growing what Wenk calls “a little bit of everything.” He’s even started growing experimental crops like elderberry and continues to research the apple industry’s past in hopes of rediscovering some of the best flavors for cider.

More recently, the farm started growing Saskatoons and quince for some of its restaurateurs.

What's the risk?

Do you have a favorite type of peach?

While peaches are Pennsylvania’s second-biggest crop, people tend not to ask for specific types, said Dr. James R. Schupp, professor of pomology and director of the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville.

When it comes to apples, however, some people can rattle off at least 10 different varieties.

“Historically, apples are blessed and cursed with ... memories of pulling a particular variety off of a tree,” he said.

And with a market saturated with options, the risks associated with agricultural production are not for the faint of heart, said Lynn F. Kime, senior extension associate at Penn State University’s department of agricultural economics, sociology and extension education.

The biggest risk farmers face is weather, he said. Over the course of a 15-minute hailstorm, a grower could lose an entire crop. Even if the crop survives, farmers have to examine the damage and determine if the fruit is acceptable for canning or juicing. Bruised apples aren’t acceptable for fresh-market consumption.

Crop insurance isn’t mandatory, but Kime recommends it. Farmers can protect themselves through the Federal Crop Insurance Corp.

Farmers also have to worry about wildlife snacking on their crops.

When a deer takes a bite out of one bud from an apple tree, that’s five blossoms, said Ben Wenk. “Five blossoms means that five apples are being taken out of our pockets and if a single deer comes by and nibbles the buds alone of half a row of trees in a night, that’s thousands of dollars’ worth of damage,” he said.

And that’s not taking into account the bacterial and fungal diseases that a tree could develop.

For Wenk, though, the risks are worth it.

“At the end of the day, the risks of the agricultural industry are many and you have to really love what you do. You can’t wake up and think about all the things that will go wrong during the day, you won’t be able to withstand the pressure,” said Wenk.

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Emily Thurlow

Emily Thurlow

​Emily Thurlow covers York County​ for the Central Penn Business Journal. Have a tip? Drop her a line at ethurlow@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter @localloislane.

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