Millions of U.S. Apples Were Almost Left to Rot. Now, They'll Go to Hungry Families

Nov 29, 2023

By Alan Jinich

It's getting late in the harvest season in Berkeley County, West Virginia and Carla Kitchen's team is in the process of hand-picking nearly half a million pounds of apples. In a normal year, Kitchen would sell to processors like Andros that make applesauce, concentrate, and other products. But this year they turned her away.

"Imagine 80% of your income is sitting on the trees and the processor tells you they don't want them," Kitchen says. "You've got your employees to worry about. You've got fruit on the trees that need somewhere to go. What do you do?"

For the first time in 36 years, Kitchen had nowhere to sell the bulk of her harvest. It could have been the end of her business. And she wasn't the only one. Across the country, growers were left without a market. Due to an oversupply carried over from last year's harvest, growers were faced with a game-time economic decision: Should they pay the labor to harvest, crossing their fingers for a buyer to come along, or simply leave the apples to rot?

Bumper crops, export declines and the weather have contributed to the apple crisis

Christopher Gerlach, director of industry analytics at USApple, says the surplus this year was caused by several compounding factors. Bumper crops have kept domestic supply high. Exports have declined 21% over the past decade, a symptom of retaliatory tariffs from India that only ended this fall.

Weather also played a role this year as hail left a significant share of apples cosmetically unsuitable for the fresh market. Growers would normally recoup some value by selling to processors, but that wasn't an option for many either – processors still had leftovers from last year sitting in climate-controlled storage.

"Last year's season was so good that the price went down on processors and they said, 'let's buy while the buyings good,' " Gerlach says. "These processors basically filled up their storage warehouses. It's just the market."

While many growers in neighboring states like Maryland and Virginia left their apples to drop. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was able to convince the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to pay for the apples produced by growers in his state, which only makes up 1% of the national market.

A relief program in West Virginia donated its surplus apples to hunger-fighting charities

This apple relief program, covered under Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1935, purchased $10 million worth of apples from a dozen West Virginia growers. Those apples were then donated to hunger-fighting charities across the country from South Carolina and Michigan all the way out to The Navajo Nation.

A nonprofit called The Farmlink Project took care of more than half the state's surplus – 10 million pounds of apples filling nearly 300 trucks.

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