The first snows of the season are dusting the hills beyond these apple orchards, where the wind has already stripped some trees to their spidery winter form.

Harvest used to be over by now. Three crazed weeks in fall was all it took, less than 10 years ago, to bring in the industry's signature Red Delicious apples, which back then made up more than 70 percent of Washington state's crop.

Not anymore.

As apple growers struggle with low prices and a glutted world market, they are producing a rainbow of new varieties in a harvest season that stretches from late summer to past Thanksgiving.

Growers are dabbling in high-end export markets, growing freakishly large, salmon-pink Fujis given as gifts in Taiwan. Others are hoping the debut of pre-sliced apples in a bag will do for apples what peeled carrots and chopped lettuce did for those crops: double consumption.

And for the first time ever, the old standby Red Delicious will constitute less than half the crop, estimated to be the second-largest in state history at 92 million boxes.

Grower Alan Witte of East Wenatchee watches closely as workers pick his Fuji apples, each grown in individual, double-layer paper bags to develop a pink skin so bright the apples look lit from within. The fuss over this crop is a snapshot of what it's taking for some growers to stay in business.

Every Fuji tree has to be pruned twice, first in winter, then again in late summer to strip new growth so the apples get the maximum amount of light.

Workers carefully tie a double-layer paper bag over each apple in mid-June. Because they grow in the dark, the Fujis take on no coloration. In about 90 days, after the apples have sweetened and grown to full size, the bags are removed, one layer at a time, about a week apart, so the apples won't sunburn.

Then the fruit's color develops. But it does so on a creamy-white background rather than on skin green from the chlorophyll normally present from exposure to sunlight. The result is a fluorescent pink with touches of cream.

At harvest time, each apple is handpicked, its stem clipped short so it doesn't prick the tender skin of the apple next to it. The trees are picked twice, sometimes more often, to harvest each apple at optimal color.

Finally, the apples are laid gently by hand into bins, taking care not to bruise the apples' pink perfection.

It costs growers $19 on average to grow and pack a box of conventional Fuji apples--just breaking even with the current average price at the farm gate of $19 per 42-pound box.

The double-bagged Fujis are much more expensive to produce--about $30 per box--but the return can be as high as $50 per box.

"When we got started doing it, we thought we'd gone around the bend," says Witte, who is in his sixth year of growing the fancy Fujis. "We are tearing our hair out, trying just about anything. This is as crazy as it gets. But it also seemed crazy enough that it just might work."

These apples will pay the bills for the other less-charismatic fruit in Witte's third-generation apple orchard, including Red Delicious apples, which growers are producing at a loss.

Apples are the state's No. 1 agricultural commodity. And this season, near-perfect growing conditions have helped growers produce one of the highest-quality crops in years, with juicy, sweet fruit and glowing color.

Yet the industry is in a painful shakedown caused by the loss of export markets, by cheap apple-juice imports that knocked the floor out from under the price for fresh apples, and by increased competition from other countries, including Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

China, the world's largest apple producer by far, has a record crop this year of 22 million tons, up 6 percent from last year. Washington is already losing some of its coveted Asian markets to Chinese fruit, a problem that is expected to get worse as China builds the ability to compete in the export market.

An estimated 20 percent of Washington growers are expected to be out of business before the worst is over, says Tim Smith of Washington State University's Chelan County Cooperative Extension, which provides informal education to growers.

"I don't see anything but a downhill slide, and I don't know when it's going to end," Smith says. "The slippery slope doesn't necessarily carry everyone down, but the general trend [for growers] is for ever less value for your product."

Congress handed the industry its first major federal bailout this year, with a $138 million national assistance program for apple growers who face losses because of weather or market disasters. The assistance is expected to amount to about $30,000 per grower in Washington. The industry has lost $760 million nationally over the past year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Domestic consumption of apples remains flat, and has remained so for 10 years, stuck at 19.6 pounds a year per person. That's half of what Europeans and Canadians eat.

Meanwhile, apples pile in ruby drifts along the ground in eastern Washington orchards and hang thickly on the trees. The very air smells of apples, fruity and sweet.

The abundance is not welcome. For the third year in a row, growers are ripping out old varieties of Red Delicious apple trees. Prices for those apples are in a deep dive at about $10 per 42-pound box at the farm gate, well below the cost of production.

Any grower still making money in the apple business is also growing something else.

Doyle Fleming plucks a wine-red Cameo apple fresh from a tree and tosses it to his business partner Fred Valentine, who pops it open with a single twist of his pocketknife.

This apple variety appeared by accident in a nearby orchard in the 1980s, a chance fruit the two hope will launch a new chapter in Washington state's apple industry.

The Cameo apple is so new and unique that it is both trademarked and patented. Valentine and Fleming are seeking to form a cooperative of 25 growers to manage 90 percent of Cameo production in Washington and to strictly control the supply and price of the fruit.

"We have to be able to control our own destiny again," Fleming says. Most important, he and the other growers want to control the fruit's quality.

The Cameos' bright, sweet-tart taste, tender skin and juicy crunch make it unique. But those qualities can be lost if the apples are not grown correctly, shipped carefully and handled properly by stores.

Growers have become openly critical of some strains of Red Delicious apples that look beautiful but taste like a raw potato. They hope new varieties, such as the Cameo, will boost sales.

"I can sell them over the phone, they sound so good," Valentine says.