Apple growing may be on the decline in Maryland, but the orchard business could continue to be profitable if growers scale back and adapt to market conditions, agriculture experts say.

The amount of Maryland land planted with apple trees has progressively fallen from 36,700 acres in 1919 to 11,500 acres in 1947 to 5,700 acres in 1983, the Agricultural Statistics Service reported.

While Maryland's total acreage declined, the concentration of apple orchards has steadily increased in Washington County. The county accounted for more than two-thirds of the state's apple tree acreage in 1982 -- the latest year for which figures were available, compared to one-third in 1935.

A combination of factors -- including labor problems, drought, aging trees and market competition -- has forced a growing number of apple growers out of business in recent years, including two large orchards near Hancock, said Richard Heflebower Jr., of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Last year, under the threat of federal fines, Maryland orchards were forced to hire domestic fruit pickers rather than the customary Jamaican migrant workers.

Growers lamented the change in federal labor rules, saying that Jamaicans consider apple-picking a good-paying job, while most physically strong Americans go into higher-paying work.

Washington County orchards manged to "squeak by" using domestic pickers last fall, but Heflebower noted that the harvest season was easier than usual due to lower apple yields. "Labor is a major factor in Maryland orchard problems, but you can't say labor alone is to blame. There are poor apple prices and another thing is that over time we have to get our orchards down to a smaller and more manageable size," he said.

The extension agent said most of Washington County's orchards range from about 500 to 1,000 acres, with most of the fruit trees being "very large" and difficult to harvest, compared to apple-growing centers in other states.

"It will take years to get our orchards sized down to smaller trees," said Heflebower, adding that orchards are usually better managed in 25- to 50-acre tracts run like a family-style farm.