By VAL VAN METER

The Winchester Star via Associated Press

WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) -- It's hard to think of anything else that could have gone wrong with this year's apple crop.

Diane Kearns, treasurer of Fruit Hill Orchard Inc., Frederick County's largest apple-growing operation, blames the less-thanstellar harvest on a late frost, hail damage, extreme summer heat and drought, and an infestation of crop-damaging brown marmorated stink bugs.

"It was, generally, a really bad year," Kearns said. For some growers, it was devastating, she added.

Growers in the Winchester area -- Virginia's largest appleproducing region -- have pretty much wrapped up this year's harvest.

Fruit Hill picked about 900,000 bushels of apples, Kearns said, down from more than 1.2 million bushels picked last year by the family-owned corporation.

Many apple growers on the East Coast had markedly smaller crops this year.

John Marker of Marker-Miller Orchards in Frederick County attended a recent meeting of producers at Knouse Foods Co-op Inc. in Biglersville, Pa.

"They were a million bushels off what the growers had estimated," said Marker, who serves on Knouse's cooperative board. "It just wasn't there."

Statewide, the apple crop is expected to be down 8 percent from last year's 245 million pounds, according to Herman Ellison of the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service in Richmond.

The harvest is moving more slowly that in past years, Ellison added.

At this point last year, 100 percent of the fall apples and 82 percent of the winter apples had been picked. Only 92 percent of the fall crop and 79 percent of the winter crop have been harvested so far this year, he said.

Tony Wolf, director of the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agriculture and Research Center in Frederick County, said the lack of water was a major culprit behind the smaller size of this year's apples. While the northern Shenandoah Valley is generally the driest part of the state, this year's severe drought hurt the apple crop.

Two significant frosts in April and one in May also damaged the emerging fruit.

And the excessive summer heat affected apple color and often caused sun scald on the fruit.

"There was a lot going on from the climate standpoint," Wolf said.

Kearns is concerned that the perfect storm of troubles could put more growers out of business.

For the past two years, she said, growers have had a "reasonable crop and decent prices."

But prior to that, "there were a series of lousy years," and many growers left the business, she said.

The arrival of the stink bug could end up being "the straw that broke the camel's back," Kearns said.

"We've always had a little stink bug damage," said Marker, referring to native green stink bugs.

But the "new" stink bug is native to China and has no known predators in the U.S. It damages apples and other fruits by piercing them and sucking out juice.

To effectively combat the non-native stink bugs, growers would have to spray every three days during the growing season, Marker said.

"We can't use that much chemical , and we couldn't afford it," he added.

Plus, Kearns said, adult and nymph stink bugs attack fruit by punching a needle-sized hole in the skin -- damage that isn't always apparent from the outside.

That makes apple processors leery about setting prices for various grades of apples when they can't tell if an apple has been damaged by a stink bug until it is cut open.

Apples can be kept in cold storage for many months without hurting the quality of the fruit. But, Marker said, "nobody knows how these are going to store" if the stink bugs have gotten to them.

Wolf said researchers soon will be meeting at the Appalachian Fruit Research Laboratory in Kearnesyville, W.Va., to consider how to deal with the stink bug threat.

"There's quite a research effort under way," he said. "It's going to be a serious problem next year. Worse than this year."

Kearns said apple growers will have to wait to see what the future brings. "We'll hope next year looks better and they find some way to deal with stink bugs."

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Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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