During apple harvest time the air here is vinegar pungent and the newspapers are filled with apple cobbler recipes. This year, however, feelings in the self-proclaimed "Apple Capital of the World" have been bruised by a dispute over the value of the fruit.
Virginia's apple growers, who trace their fruit back to precolonial European trees, last week threatened to truck their ripening produce out of the commonwealth rather than sell it at prices offered by local processors, who traditionally buy the crop and turn it into apple sauce, cider and vinegar.
"We feel the grower has been coming out on the short end and deserves a break," said Dean Carey, president of a Pennsylvania apple processing cooperative that offered Virginia apple growers $1 more per 100 pounds than the region's largest Virginia processor, the National Fruit Company in Winchester.
Although it is still too early in the harvest season -- which runs from the middle of September to early November -- to determine how many of the Shenandoah Valley's hundreds of orchardists will ship their pick to Pennsylvania, state agriculture officials say the tight apple market this year has left growers in a position to be choosy.
"Apple growers have an opportunity for the first time in years to flex their muscles," says Don Feegler, a spokesman for the Virginia Farm Bureau, because the apple crop is low.
But muscle flexing is not unusual in Virginia during apple harvest season. For the last five years, state growers fought the federal government order that fruit pickers come from Puerto Rico instead of Jamaica, where valley growers had recruited pickers for two decades.
That issue kept both sides bitter and in court. One suit now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court was filed by Puerto Rico against 102 growers, including several orchards owned by the family of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind.-Va.)
This year, the Reagan administration changed the Carter administration's policy that required growers to import Puerto Ricans, who have the same legal rights as federal workers, and the Jamaicans are back in the fields again.
"There is no Puerto Rican situation this year," said Jack Hashian, a Labor Department spokesman. "We just decided to remove all this adversary business."
With that dispute settled for the time being, apple growers and processors turned to their local skirmish over apple prices. Virginia's apple crop this year is expected to be down 20 percent from last year. That has pushed apple prices up for processors and eventually for consumers. It also created more bargaining room for growers, who, because apples are perishable, are usually "between a rock and a hard place" in price haggling, says Feegler.
In Winchester and the surrounding counties of Frederick and Clarke, where half of Virginia's 10-million bushel, $33-million apple crop was grown last year, apples are golden in more than name and color. Fully one quarter of Frederick County's rolling hill country, for example, is covered in fruit orchards. Not surprisingly the local chamber of commerce president wears an apple tie clasp.
"I used to think it was a red apple in the garden of Eden, but now I know it was a golden delicious," says Wade Ferguson, touting a local variety.
The price dispute between growers and processors has been watched carefully by local and state officials, eager to keep apple tax revenues in Virginia. They were pleased earlier this week when the second largest apple processing company in the area, the Shenandoah Apple Cooperative, offered prices to match the Pennsylvania bid.
Joseph Kalbach, the executive vice president and general manager of Shenandoah, which bottles half a dozen apple products, warned last week that the price offered by his co-op could drop unless growers held out against National, which is still offering a dollar less per hundred pounds. Later, Kalbach had second thoughts about provoking a fight with the second largest independent apple processor in the country.
"We decided to call a truce," he said. "We had enough bad publicity."
Apple growers, however, say they need to get the best price they can for their crop, which can be wiped out unexpectedly by weather, rodents or disease.
But National is still holding out, not raising its prices. Charles Toan, a vice president of the firm that began in 1908 in Alexandria as a vinegar company, said he's confident National will get a good share of this year's apple business anyway.
That confidence is not based on customer loyalty so much as economic pragmatism. Apple growers may be in a seller's market this season, but in a year of high supply and low demand, large processors such as National can give preferential treatment to regular suppliers, leaving orchardists shopping for a place to sell their crop before it rots.