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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Another Casualty of the Global Economy - Apples???

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Jane Brox's apple orchard has withstood decades of hurricanes and other east coast storms. Now comes the threat that may finally cause her to chop down those trees - the international financial crisis.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator and farmer Jane Brox has been preparing for the first spring planting. But this year she's got a dilemma: what to do about her apple orchard. The apples, it seems, are not only vulnerable to pests and disease, but to the forces of global markets as well.

BROX: Small New England orchards are having a tough time of it these days. In the 20s, back when there had been a million apple trees growing on the hills of our county, Red Delicious, along with Mcintosh, Baldwin, and Wealthy, had been one of the prime Massachusetts apples. When my father planted his Red Delicious trees in the 50s, the variety was still a strong seller. Since then, demand has gradually fallen off over the years, in part because of the inundation of larger, shinier, and I say far less tasty Red Delicious apples from Washington State.

Every year I talk with our farm manager Dave about taking the chainsaw to the 45-year-old trees and planting new varieties in their place. We talk, too, about getting out of the apple business altogether, as most growers here have done. But every once in a while we find some hope to keep us from giving up on the Red Delicious altogether. Several years ago, Dave found a Latino market in the nearby city of Lawrence would take all the Red Delicious he could deliver. His customers like a sweet apple, the store owner had said. And they'd like our small apples, since they're a good size for kids. With more newcomers arriving in Lawrence from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico all the time, this felt like a market to be counted on for years to come.

That is, until the bottom fell out of the Russian and Asian markets. With their devastated economies, imported food has become too expensive for the citizens of those countries, so our local markets have been flooded with the fruit the larger, western growers couldn't unload overseas.

Recently, when Dave called to arrange a delivery to the Lawrence market, the storekeeper told him he'd only pay the same $5 a bushel price he pays for Washington State apples. Five dollars a bushel. That's about 12 and a half cents a pound. It isn't worth the labor it takes to grade and pack them, so we've turned the local juice factory. Ungraded tons of apples carted off in a borrowed dump truck weighed and sold for 3 or 4 cents a pound, mixed with all the other unsold local apples, processed into juice, and, I imagine, shipped throughout the world.

Apple trees, which take years to produce a salable crop, are such a long-term investment that they ask for certainty. But there never has been any certainty in the apple economy, and there's even less in a global market. Now that China is becoming a dominant apple-producing country, it has begun to flood the juice market with concentrate. Our local juice factory, the last resort, no longer feels secure. And I fear that our Red Delicious apple trees, which have withstood over 40 years of winter gales and hurricane winds, may finally succumb to modern economic forces.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox is author of 5,000 Days Like This One: An American Family History.



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