Area growers predict rules would harm orchardists

Posted: April 10, 2013

The Winchester Star

Apple trees, shown in this Tuesday photo, are starting to bud at Fruit Hill Orchard north of Winchester. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a massive overhaul of the U.S. food safety system, and has outlined strict new standards for raw apples. Area growers surveyed have issues with the plan. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Greg Shanholtz plants an apple tree Tuesday afternoon at Fruit Hill Orchard north of Winchester. The tree is a replacement for one of several young trees destroyed by high winds during a thunderstorm last June.
Jose Hernandez plants an apple tree while Greg Morris hauls the new trees in a tractor. Some area growers said proposed FDA food rules were too strict and would increase costs and curb efficiency. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Diane Kearns isn’t familiar with the details of the Food Safety Modernization Act, but when told it might require her to sanitize canvas fruit-picking bags — one of a host of measures tree fruit farmers would have to implement — her reaction was a mixture of frustration and exasperation.

She knows the aim is to prevent foodborne illnesses, but she thinks the end result could be fewer apple growers.

“It’s going to increase cost and reduce efficiency,” said Kearns, president of Fruit Hill Orchard Inc., which manages about 3,000 acres of apple orchards in Frederick County and surrounding areas.

In an industry that’s already heavily regulated, “This is just one more thing to deal with,” she lamented Tuesday morning from her Echo Lane office. “A certain number of people are going to say, ‘I’m out.’”

About 1.5 million bushels of apples are harvested each year in Frederick County — roughly a quarter of the state’s crop. Most of the local orchards — Kearns estimates there are 30 to 35 — grow apples largely for commercial use, but some are sold on the fresh market.

The proposed regulations are aimed at produce that is consumed raw.

Local orchards have been disappearing from the landscape over the years largely because they’re no longer profitable.

And the proposed regulations could have the unintended consequence of making it even more difficult for American farmers to compete in a global marketplace, Kearns said.

“You’re just stepping one step closer to growers saying, “We’re not going to plant any more trees.’”

Tim Proctor, chief operating officer for National Fruit Product Co. Inc., a Winchester-based apple processor and grower, thinks the government is trying to fix something that isn’t broken when it comes to apples.

He said the fruit typically isn’t associated with foodborne illnesses.

“Our food supply is the safest in the world,” Proctor said. “I’d be more concerned about what we’re importing.”

John Marker, who has about 250 acres of apple, peach, pear and plum trees at his Frederick County farm off Cedar Creek Grade, plus 10 acres of vegetables, said he’s not against the regulations.

“Some of the things are fine,” said Marker, who also operates a seasonal produce market with his wife, Carolyn.

His biggest issue is that they “paint everything with the same brush” — tree crops are subject to the same regulations as ground crops, including keeping out animals.

“Domestic animals, no problem,” Marker said. “But how do you keep wild animals out of trees?”

He added that tree crops, unlike ground crops, aren’t as susceptible to contamination “because, well, they don’t grow on the ground. They’re up high.”

Kearns agrees that some of the proposed regulations seem to lack common sense.

Apples grow outside, she said. “What are we supposed to do about the birds and squirrels and bunnies? Even if we build a fence, the rabbits will burrow underneath. And we can’t net everything. This is an outdoor crop that needs sunlight.”

She thinks it would be more effective for any new safety measures to be implemented near the end of harvest. If controls are placed during the growing season, “it just leaves a lot of room for something else to happen.”

Marker conceded that apple growers will have to comply with the regulations if they go into effect, which could be as early as fall 2014.

For some, that might be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

— Contact Cynthia Cather Burton at cburton@winchesterstar.com