- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) Apple orchards and their fruit have been a central part of Frederick County's economy for decades, but many orchard owners say the future may look a lot different from the past.
Apple growers say the combination of lower crop prices and the increasing land value makes it inevitable that residential developments soon will move in.
"I would be amazingly surprised if apples were still here, the way they are now, in the next several years," said Diane Kearns of Fruit Hill Orchards, the president of the county's Fruit Growers Association.
Into the 1960s, the apple industry was crucial in the county. The South Frederick Agricultural District still provides farmers a static property value for tax purposes on about 12,000 acres west and south of Winchester, but some say the tax breaks don't ease the losses enough.
Dudley H. Rinker, a longtime apple grower, asked to be removed from the district because he says it no longer was profitable to grow apples.
While Mr. Rinker says his family will continue to grow apples for a while, as it has done for more than 100 years, but he thinks the future of his 160-acre orchard is likely two- and five-acre residential lots.
"I debated pulling out of the district two or three years ago, when we were coming up for renewal, but I spoke with my mother and we decided even if we decided to do something else, we could lease the orchards while someone else took over," he said. "I don't think we could even find somebody to lease them now, things have gotten so bad."
The Frederick County Agricultural District Advisory Committee recommended allowing Mr. Rinker to depart from the district. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will make the final determination.
The district allows the county to preserve open spaces for five-year periods, so some members will try to make better use of their fruit.
"A lot of people are looking at other ways to market their fruit," said Cordell Watt with Timber Ridge Fruit Farm, near Gore.
Alternative uses could include producing homemade goods such as cider, bread and pies, or growing other crops to make up some of their apple losses.
Selling the orchards could change the county's landscape forever.
"You can't just plow the land and decide to do something else. Generations have put their lives into these orchards," Mr. Watt said. "They're losing money now, and the land represents their retirement."
Struggling on is frustrating, said John Marker of Marker-Miller Orchards, and likely to cause some growers to cut back on production.
"We're fighting five years of low prices. They went down 25 percent this year. We lose money on every bushel we pick. We fight the prices, we fight the weather and we fight the government. It's not easy," he said.
Agriculture made up 17.3 percent of the county's taxes in 1991, the commissioner of revenue said. By 2001, that was down to 14.7 percent.
While some growers think the county should subsidize the orchards, many local government officials have been cool to the idea, even though it could protect the open spaces from becoming big developments.
"Usually there's some ray of sunshine on the horizon," Mr. Rinker said. "But I just don't see one this time."

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