PORTLAND – Apple picking is getting under way in orchards across the state this week amid growing concern about the future of the industry.
Competition from foreign growers and the loss of land to housing are just some of the problems afflicting the industry, along with bad weather that led to undersized fruit this summer.
“The cold, wet summer has been a problem,” said Judy Dimock of Madison, secretary of the Maine Pomological Society. “The fruit has been late maturing, and hasn’t sized as rapidly as normal.”
Other aspects of the weather have also been damaging. Last year’s summer drought hit many orchardists hard, and growers say a massive hailstorm on June 30 damaged hundreds of apple trees in coastal and central Maine.
The result of all these factors has been a decline in the annual harvest, with 45 million pounds expected this year. The Maine harvest is only about half the size of a decade ago.
Many growers have found in recent years that their land is worth more than their crops. Maine orchards have dropped from 5,200 to 4,500 acres since the early 1980s.
“With the way things are going, I’ll be out of business in five years or less,” said Tom Terison, 56, owner of the Double T Orchard in Cumberland, which has been in his family for more than 40 years.
He says several of his neighbors have closed and others are considering it. “Taxes keep going up, so you can make more money selling off your land for house lots than growing and selling apples,” he said.
Cumberland has about a half-dozen orchards, and the suburb is under intense development pressure.
The concern spreads all the way to the state’s top farmer, Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear, who hopes that Mainers will patronize the state’s orchards.
“There’s competition from all around. We’re continuing to lose orchards,” he said. “We’re concerned about this industry. If you lose a sense of the rural economy, then you lose everything.”
Two long-operating orchards in the state recently announced that they would close or sell out. Chick Orchards in Monmouth, which produced about a third of the state’s harvest, announced this spring that it was going out of business.
Members of the Gile family in Alfred say they also feel the pressure facing many growers.
“I guess this will be the last year,” Bruce Gile said recently as he pruned tree limbs at a 14-acre orchard in Alfred, one of several the family owns or leases.