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Apple growers in Western New York are in better shape this year than they were a year ago and they say the dry, hot summer will mean sweeter -- albeit smaller -- apples.

But ongoing, systemic pressures are forcing
many farmers to plant different kinds of fruit and become more marketing-savvy.

The summer drought was nothing compared to the weather woes that plagued growers last year when hail, powerful storms and a late frost damaged much of the crop. The New York Apple Association said that last year 674 growers across the state picked 25.5 million bushels of apples, but only 22.9 million bushels were utilized.

Association spokesperson Shelley Page estimated that this year's crop will produce 26.5 million bushels, about 6 percent higher than the state's annual average.

"Some of the fruit is a little on the small side, but the apples are going to be sweeter and crispier because of all the sunny weather we saw this summer. People will have some really good eating experiences this year," Ms. Page said.

Alison DeMarree, an area educator for Cornell Cooperation Extension, said some growers have encountered "drought-stressed fruit," but she predicted that most farmers will have a relatively good harvest. And Ms. DeMarree said apple connoisseurs will be in their glory.

"This is probably the highest-quality apple crop we've had in four of five years," said Ms. DeMarree. "The fruit is sweeter and the color is excellent. The consumer is going to make out quite well."

Due to a glut of apples in the Pacific Northwest, many experts project that retail prices in the Northeast to remain stable or be slightly lower than last year. Continuing economic turmoil in Asia has curtailed demand for fruit import. Washington, the nation's No. 1 apple-producer, has been hardest hit by global pressures.

"Growers in Washington produce 120 million bushels of apples a year, so anything that happens there tends to affect the rest of us," said Ms. DeMarree.

James Bittner is co-owner of Singer Farms in Appleton, one of the region's largest apple-growing farms. Bittner, a former president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, said Western New York farmers will produce a fairly large apple crop this year.

Bittner said growers are already benefiting from a recent ruling by federal regulators. This summer, the International Joint Commission concluded that Chinese exporters had "dumped" their apple juice concentrates on the American market. The glut of imports made last year's local juice apple crop virtually worthless.

"We're waiting for a final ruling to come down at the end of the month, but the mere threat has already raised the price of Chinese concentrate," Bittner said, noting that the price of juice apples has gone up by one-half cent a pound in recent weeks.

While Bittner said things are looking up in the short-term, many apple growers continue to face an uncertain future. Increased competition from domestic and foreign growers, the rising costs of running farms and a labor shortage are making it more difficult for apple farmers to turn a profit.

The New York Apple Association estimates that the number of apple farms statewide has declined by 16 percent since 1990. There are 127 fewer farms than there were nine years ago and acreage devoted to apple orchards has dropped by at least 9 percent during the same period.

Bittner, who operates a 500-acre farm in Niagara County, said he has been gradually reducing his apple crop so that he can increase production of other fruit, including cherries, peaches, plums, prunes and apricots.

"We're going to be cutting down more trees over the next couple years. We'll be lowering our production of apples by about 5 percent a year," he said.

The globalization of produce isn't the only factor that's clouding the long-term outlook for many apple growers. Ms. Page said the ongoing consolidation of domestic food processing facilities has hurt many growers, especially those with smaller orchards who have relied on local or regional processors to buy their fruit.

"There continue to be many closings and restructurings among processors, and the situation is getting worse and worse every year," she said.

She noted that some farmers have responded to increased market pressures by focusing their efforts on high-value apples -- premium fruits that command higher prices. Some varieties that are gaining popularity include Ginger Gold, Golden Supreme, Fuji and Honey Crisp.

She added that increasing competition from other parts of the United States and foreign growers are spurring more farmers to think like marketers.

"The old line of thinking used to be 'if I grow it, someone will buy it. That mind-set just doesn't work in 1999 and it won't work as we move into the 21st century."

Ms. Page said some apple growers are trying to improve their bottom lines by venturing into direct marketing, including setting up stands in urban farmers' markets and selling fruit baskets on the Internet. Others are trying to boost on-site sales by making their farms family destinations as they set up petting zoos, corn mazes and offer hay rides.

"We even know of some apple growers that have become their own processors of value-added products. For example, one grower in another region is making gourmet apple pies," Ms. Page said.

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