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From Orchard to Crisis

Behind the idyllic image of American apple farming, economic disasters lurk — but an innovative nonprofit saved one area’s massive harvest.

By Gillian Feinglass

Historically, American agriculture featured small family-run farms selling locally grown produce to nearby businesses and consumers. Farming represented a wholesome, simpler way of life, often idealized as a departure from the stresses of city living. It painted a vision of farmers living happily off the land among red barns and grazing cows on picturesque pastures – a romanticized portrayal that filled American’s imaginations and hearts.  

Modern agriculture is significantly more complex than the nostalgic image implies. Farming is one of the United States’s most competitive, risky, and cutthroat industries, dominated by powerful companies prioritizing efficiency and low costs above all else. Farmers must do everything possible to contend with the variables in an industry ultimately controlled by the uncontrollable: Mother Nature. Farmers now rely on data analytics, aerial imaging, genetically modified crops, artificial intelligence, and remote sensing technologies to boost crop yields, optimize resource utilization, and anticipate environmental challenges for survival. Yet even with that technology, many struggle to make ends meet.  

The reality is that American farmers are never entirely in control of their destiny. One storm can decimate a farm’s entire production. Global crises can disrupt supply chains and cause labor shortages. Government policy can shift market conditions, resulting in a loss of exports and a substantial financial burden.    

Or, in the case of eleven West Virginia apple growers, corporate buyers can pull out of longstanding contracts right before harvest, forcing farmers to abandon millions of dollars of perfectly delicious apples hanging on trees. With no new buyers, not enough money to pick the apples, or sufficient storage to store all the apples, these farmers were preparing to watch 50 million apples rot before their eyes while over 44 million people, including one in five children, were food insecure in America. To grasp the enormity of this loss, picture three NFL football fields stacked 20 feet high with rotting apples.  

Photo by Kate Nelson on The Farmlink Project

This story is about more than just the plight of these 11 apple farms. It extends far beyond West Virginia’s apple orchards, highlighting the fragile and volatile nature of the American food system, which places unsustainable pressure on farmers. It also showcases the collaborative efforts between farmers, government agencies, and hunger-fighting nonprofits needed to prevent this wasteful crisis before it was too late.  

The West Virginia Apple Predicament

I heard about this apple fiasco for the first time after completing a fellowship with The Farmlink Project, a non-profit dedicated to combating food waste and hunger. Since my fellowship was entirely distinct from Farmlink’s primary work of redistributing surplus produce from farms to food banks, I was stunned when news broke about the unprecedented scale of this apple recovery. According to Farmlink’s research, this crisis marks the largest instance of food recovery in North America or anything remotely close to it.  

I knew that farming can be unpredictable and that a certain degree of waste generation is inevitable at every level of our food chain. But the idea of allowing 50 million apples, along with the millions of dollars invested in their production, to rot away on trees and release tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases seemed absurd and entirely avoidable.  

Months before harvest, all was going according to plan for the 11 growers in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle known as “Apple Pie Ridge.” This region was once celebrated as one of the largest apple-producing areas in the tri-state region. Growing apples is a labor of love and hard work. For months, the farmers had been routinely pruning thousands of acres of burgeoning trees, using large amounts of water and fertilizer to cultivate optimal apple growth, and managing pests and diseases to protect the trees and apples. The farmers were on track to fulfill the obligations of their contracts with four major buyers, some of whom they had maintained business relationships with for over 30 years. All of a sudden, the contracts were cut.  

“We felt blindsided,” says Don Dove, the general manager of George S. Orr and Sons Farm, one of the remaining family-run farms in the area. Founded in 1954, Dove’s farm has a strong history of navigating the unpredictable nature of farm life, dependably producing over 1.3 million apples each year. “We measure and analyze everything we do because we know that every last cent makes a difference in this industry,” says Dove, emphasizing the relentless pressure to keep costs low and the impact of uncontrollable factors. However, as they approach their 70th year in business, George S. Orr and Sons Farm have never dealt with such an unstable wholesale market. Making 60% of their income from wholesale, the substantial decline in apples bought by large processors has placed significant financial stress on the farm compared to previous years. Depending on who you ask, there are many explanations for why the contracts were cut with so little warning.  

Photo by Kate Nelson on The Farmlink Project

Dwindling demand

Beyond contractual setbacks, the landscape for West Virginia apple orchards has become increasingly challenging for many years. Today, “the overall demand for apples is down,” says Dove. Berkeley County is home to George S. Orr and Sons Farm and several other apple orchards. 30 years ago, the area had 10,000 acres of orchard land. According to the 2017 agricultural census, the county has about a quarter of the land it did to grow apples. Now, West Virginia’s apples account for 1% of the national market. “If you don’t have grit and the love for the land, it’s going to be really hard to weather the farming storm,” says Dove. 

Berkeley County’s proximity to major urban centers, such as Washington D.C and Baltimore, has increased the population in the area and, subsequently, the value of the area’s properties. This surge and reduced apple production, compounded by the demand to keep costs low, has forced many farmers to move or retire. As a result, many of the nation’s leading apple processors chose to pursue more favorable economic conditions, placing significant strain on the remaining farmers in “Apple Pie Ridge.”   

For example, Knouse Foods Cooperative Inc. closed its applesauce plant in Berkeley County in 2008. The decision was a direct consequence of the region’s dwindling apple production and a strategic desire to be located closer to growers. Knouse’s Foods CEO, Ken Guise, said the move was because “housing developments now stand where orchards once were, and there’s been a continuing decline in cases produced at the plant.” This was not an isolated incident but a recurring pattern in the Eastern Panhandle that underscores the changing dynamics and challenges faced by the region’s apple industry.  

Apple exports have declined 21% over the past ten years, which experts attribute to India’s Retaliatory Tariffs on apples, among other produce. According to the USDA, “U.S. apple exports, which were most affected by the retaliatory tariffs, have the potential to climb from $4.8 million in 2022 to $50-$80 million in 2024.  

Dove along with many of the remaining farmers in “Apple Pie Ridge” believe this situation was largely due to the lingering economic effects of COVID-19. During the pandemic, the government nearly doubled the USDA’s food and nutrition spending program from $92.5 billion to $182.5 billion in 2021. Government-sponsored initiatives like the Farmers to Families Program, National School Lunch Program, and Farm to Food Bank Projects led to increased apple purchases to combat the rising rates of food insecurity and surplus on farms, benefitting the processors and farmers significantly. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The previous year’s volume of domestic apple production was so high that it notably reduced the crop price.  

However, processors were left with a surplus of apples when the programs ended earlier than they had anticipated. Since these processors specialize in non-perishable apple products such as apple juice and apple sauce, the companies fulfilled their inventory needs using the surplus apples from the previous season, notably reducing their need for fresh apples from farms in 2023. “There used to be that there was one element we had no control over. Now we have two elements. We have a wholesale market that is so unstable that we never know from year to year whether we will make money or not,” says Dove.     

The impact of this situation “was going to affect everyone from the pickers, to the truckers, to us [the farmers]. It would’ve been devastating. It would have wiped me out, I know that,” says Garland Elliot, the owner of Applecrest Orchard. According to Mike Meyer, the head of advocacy at Farmlink, the “average loss per apple orchard was around a quarter of a million dollars per farm.”   

Hilary King is a professor at Emory University specializing in the intersection of anthropology, environmental science, and food systems. Klein was quick to say that she was not surprised to hear that the contacts were canceled last minute. Klein says that “small farmers are at a disadvantage because they tend to have less power. They are the producers of the raw material of the part of the food chain that historically receives the least money.” Due to large investments of capital and time needed to grow apples, “these farmers are not people with a  livelihood that makes it easy to shift in response to changing market conditions,” adds Klein. Without diversified market channels, farmers are vulnerable to abrupt changes, leaving them at the mercy of larger market forces.   

Combating Waste and Food Insecurity

Beyond the financial strain, the environmental impact of 50 million apples rotting to waste in the open fields cannot be understated. When apples rot, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions cause environmental pollution, threatening the local ecosystem, soil, and air quality in the region. This wastefulness reflects a larger pattern within the United States, where the inefficient handling of food waste has led the country to be the world’s third-largest generator of food waste.

Word quickly spread throughout the northwest region of West Virginia that practically the entire harvest of that year’s apples would be thrown away. Dove says that the “silver lining” of the apple situation is that it brought “all the orchardists in the area together,” brainstorming what to do next.  

The farmers were quick to act; they talked with government officials and suggested ideas to help farmers, such as subsidizing apple harvests and lowering input costs. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture and Senator Machin were “great to work with; they jumped right on and took the lead on getting something together for us,” says Dove. Many growers credit Senator Manchin for being instrumental in catalyzing the financial relief plan with the government. Senator Manchin was the one who facilitated the collaboration between the USDA and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to devise a plan to ensure that the farmers’ livelihoods and their apples were protected.  

Photo by Kate Nelson on The Farmlink Project

The government acted quickly, devising a plan to help the farmers recoup their lost earnings. The apple relief program, found under Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1935 allowed the USDA to effectively purchase $10 million worth of apples from the farmers with the stipulation that the apples must be donated to hunger-fighting charities within a 150-mile radius of the West Virginia farms. While the USDA provided the farmers with a list of eligible nonprofits for apple distribution, the farms did not receive enough funds to cover the cost of bins to transport the apples or the costs needed to bring the apples to the food banks.  

“Farmlink was a huge help. They’ve done incredible work,” says Don. As a food rescue organization, Farmlink fills a unique role by “providing transportation and logistics, as well as certain instances, packing solutions, to major food producers, that otherwise lack the capacity to handle the scale of the excess food that create,” says Ben Collier, the CEO and one of several college students who founded the nonprofit in 2020. Farmlink provided the farms with all the materials needed to transport the apples. “We then located dozens and dozens of food bank recipients throughout the neighboring states and coordinated all the transportation to bring the apples from the farm to be delivered to the food bank, free of cost to the farmers,” adds Collier.

Farmlink caught word about what was happening in West Virginia at the end of September of 2023. Since then, the non-profit has handled all the transportation and logistics required to bring 40 million apples to hunger-fighting groups. “Had Farmlink not gotten involved, 10 loads of apples per week would’ve been moved. With Farmlink, we’ve moved over 35 loads every week,” says Meyer.  

“West Virginia is not a state that’s known for nutritional meals. We have a lot of food insecurity in our state and a lot of surplus. It’s the right thing to do to make sure these communities get this food,” says Dove. In a thank you letter sent to Farmlink from Cabwaylingo Appalachian Mission Dunlow Community Center, the head of the program said, “We shared these cases of apples with multiple local agencies and to 800 families. It is very expensive for our families to purchase fresh produce. Therefore, unattainable for many unless received through donations.”  

The story of West Virginia’s apple crisis reveals the deep-seated vulnerabilities within the United States food system that place unsustainable pressure on farmers at the whim of unpredictable market dynamics far out of their control. Yet, in the face of adversity, it also shows the power of collaboration. The response from the government, spearheaded by Senator Manchin, and the vital need that Farmlink fulfilled demonstrate the unified efforts needed to mitigate food waste and effectively address food insecurity. As the 50 million rescued apples find their way to the community in need, this story is about far more than the 11 West Virginia apple farmers. It reflects a recurring pattern about farmers’ powerlessness in the United States. This story underscores the necessity of protecting our food resources and ensuring that no produce goes to waste.