Here on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, an unusual calm blankets Bill Van Deusen's commercial apple orchard, his regular workforce of migrant pickers replaced by a pervasive silence. Wooden crates meant to haul apples to a local cannery are neatly stacked, and the inspection machines sit idle in a dark room.
Van Deusen, whose grandfather first planted trees here in 1922, did not produce nearly enough apples this year to warrant the energy or the capital to bring his 250-acre orchard into full operation.
This year's mild winter, frosty spring and -- despite recent, welcome rain -- persistent drought yielded Virginia's worst fall apple harvest in 20 years, agricultural officials said. But the weather only worsened things: In the last two decades, the state's battered apple industry has lost about half its orchards and farmers to development and foreign competition.
"In normal years, this place would be rocking and rolling. But this is depressing," said Van Deusen, 51, whose Harmony Hollow orchard produced 20,000 bushels this year -- down from 75,000 last year. "It's at least a double whammy, and for some orchards, it's a killer shot. It could be death. I'm at a point right now if somebody makes me an offer to sell out, I'm likely to listen right now."
Virginia apple growers, largely based in the limestone-rich Shenandoah Valley about 60 miles west of the Capital Beltway, are a depleted lot. There are about 230 growers farming 16,400 acres, down from nearly 500 growers on about 25,600 acres in 1982, according to Richard Marini, a state agricultural extension agent and horticulture professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
This year's weather reduced the state's crop to 7.5 million bushels, down from 9 million last year, said Liz White, executive secretary of the state horticultural society, which educates growers on farming techniques.
The Old Dominion is still the country's sixth-largest apple producer, behind California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and Washington state, which grows the most -- about 160 million bushels, according to the U.S. Apple Association. The industry is relatively small in Maryland, at 900,000 bushels a year.
"I don't think apple production will go away entirely in Virginia, but it's definitely . . . in worse shape than other parts of agriculture in the state," Marini said. "In the near future, small growers with 200-acre orchards will go out of business, and across the state, there will just be about 50."
This year, farmers have groused most about the drought, which stunted the apples' growth and reduced their value.
Though the drought has not seriously affected the taste and size of tart apples, such as the Granny Smith and Stayman, sweet apples -- like the Red Delicious and Fuji -- are much blander and smaller, Marini said. The drought forced apple leaves to conserve water, depriving the sweet varieties of about half the carbon dioxide needed to make sugar.
"The drought is accentuating all of the industry's problems," said Ross Byers, a horticulture professor at Virginia Tech's agriculture research center, adding that many farmers "are questioning whether they can stay in the business, which is sad because some of the orchards have as many as 10 generations in their history."
A mild winter ruined many apple buds, cocoonlike cases that hold the apple blossoms and need nearly 2,000 "chilling hours" -- preferably about 30 degrees Fahrenheit -- to mature fully and draw as many nutrients as possible from the soil and the tree.
The warm winter also forced farmers to spend more money on pesticide to kill off insects that would have died in colder weather but instead survived into the early part of spring and feasted on the developing apples, Van Deusen said.
And then there were the spring frosts that froze many of the blossoms and destroyed the enzymes necessary for respiration, ultimately killing the fruit, Marini said.
Some farmers fought the cold by renting helicopters to blow a warm down-wash of air over the orchard or setting bags of coal afire among the rows of trees, said Ed Streapy, whose crop at High Place Orchards in Rappahannock County was down 20 percent this year.
"You can do all the jumping around you want, but as I like to say, we don't grow apples. God grows apples. I just take care of them. You got to take things as they come," he said.
Among the things local growers have had to take is a huge increase in the worldwide apple supply -- most of them grown in China -- and a resulting downturn in prices. The U.S. apple industry has lost about $1.7 billion in sales since 1996, said Jim Cranney, vice president of the Vienna-based U.S. Apple Association.
In Virginia, money used to market apple juice in grocery stores, educate farmers and conduct research has decreased. The state tax collected from apple farmers and spent on those efforts -- 5 cents per 100 pounds of apples produced -- dropped from $250,000 in 1990 to $185,000 in 2001, said Diane Kearns, head of the Virginia State Apple Board.
The decrease in the money pot hits the processing side of the industry hardest, a fact that is all the more grim because 75 percent of the apples grown in Virginia are sliced into prepared foods and turned into apple butter and applesauce. In the early 1990s, farmers could sell a pound of apples to a cannery for 6 cents; now they get about half that price, Kearns said.
Van Deusen said he wants to believe that next year will be better and that his apple-grading machines -- which roll the apples so people can inspect them for size and quality -- will be up and humming. But he keeps seeing signs predicting another mild winter slithering all over his orchard: woolly bear caterpillars showing more orange than black. An old wive's tale, he said, but true, he insisted.
"This means more larvae will survive and I won't get snow to dampen my soil. If you're a warm-weather person and like the beach, it's good, but it's not if you're an apple farmer," Van Deusen said. With that, he chucked his half-eaten York into a field of scabbed and spotted apples the size of Ping-Pong balls.