Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County

BERKELEY COUNTY — Apples are everywhere in Berkeley County.

Each of the county’s three water towers has a Red Delicious painted on the side. In downtown Martinsburg, a giant statue of an apple marks the location of a time capsule planted in 1990. And at Musselman High, the mascot is the Applemen. Today, it’s just a Red Delicious with a green leaf, but at one point the apple mascot included beefy arms and legs and a screaming face.

The “Big Apple Time Capsule” in Martinsburg, placed in 1990 to be opened in 2040. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

The school’s namesake, an apple processing plant, went out of business years ago. Today, it’s a church.

While apples loom large in the area’s history and culture, the fruit itself is increasingly disappearing from the Eastern Panhandle. Orchards once dotted the landscape; in 1987, Berkeley County alone had almost 10,000 acres growing apples and peaches. But as the Interstate 81 corridor has developed and folks from the D.C. Metro area moved in, the trees have been hacked down, the land paved over and warehouses and housing developments built instead.

As of the 2017 agricultural census — the latest number available — the county’s orchard land was only about a quarter of what it was 30 years ago.

Despite the changes, there are still farmers and orchardists in Berkeley County. Not far from the buzz of I-81, where trucks haul goods up and down the Eastern United States, one can still find rows and rows of apple trees. But as the county changes, those farmers and orchardists that remain are searching for ways to hold on and continue the agricultural tradition.

A tale of two orchards 

Back in the 1940s, decades before the interstate gobbled up nearly 40,000 acres of farmland, a man named George S. Orr Jr. started piecing together plots of orchard land.

By the time he died in the late 1980s, Orr had amassed over 1,000 acres. Today, the land is split between two parts of the family — each with different routes forward in the ever changing county.

West of Martinsburg, one path leads down a little gravel road to Orr’s Farm Market.

According to market manager Katy Orr-Dove, George Orr’s granddaughter, the market started thirty years ago with a simple idea: people could pay to come in and pick their own fruit. Over the years, that idea blossomed into a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo and hayrides in the fall — at one point they even had a small herd of buffalo.

Orr-Dove said when she got involved in the business after teaching for a while in Hagerstown, Maryland, she wanted to figure out a way to combine her passion for education with her background in farming.

“I found there were kids who didn’t know the sound a pig or a cow makes,” she said.

Orr’s Orchard Farm and Market is a third-generation family farm and apple orchard. Diversification has been key to the orchard’s continued success, said Katy Orr-Dove. Photo by Tyler Dedrick

The market, sitting on half of Orr’s original orchard, is what is nowadays called an “agritourism” attraction, essentially a working farm that has visitors come to see what farming is like. It’s a growing industry, and about 300 farms statewide engage in the practice, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

With the influx of new people in the county and the wider region, Orr-Dove said she’s seen the business move away from the wholesale production of apples — in this area, mainly for sauce and juice — towards direct retail sales. She estimates when she first got involved, the market only accounted for 15% of the orchard’s revenue. Today, it’s 40%.

“Diversifying really helps,” she said. “During 2020, we saw a hit in tourism, but the wholesale was strong. Right now, the apples aren’t selling, so tourism helps.”

Right now, she’s getting a little bit of help from the state too — a backup of last year’s crop at the cold-storage facilities has caused the apple market to bottom out. A bushel, usually about 40 pounds of apples, is going for as low as 85 cents, almost half of it costs to pick them.

To keep the orchards going in the area, for the first time in West Virginia, the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA stepped in to buy up 600,000 bushels and send them to food banks.

Over the hill is another chunk of George Orr Jr.’s empire — the Appalachian Orchard Company — which chose a different road. Headquartered just off I-81 next to the Martinsburg Industrial Park, the company grows and ships apples for production — mainly for apple juice and applesauce.

Julie Bolyard, CFO and granddaughter of George Orr, said the apple market has always been different in the Eastern Panhandle and the wider Shenandoah Valley. While in high producing states a group of growers might ship apples to a central packing house, growers in the Panhandle have always packed the apples themselves and sent them directly to processors like White House in Winchester or Knouse Foods in Pennsylvania, which bought out Musselman in 1984.

With the closure of Musselman and cutbacks at White House, Bolyard said they’ve had to get creative. That includes landing a fairly lucrative contract with GoGo squeeZ, the pouches of applesauce known to parents everywhere.

Like her cousin Katy Orr-Dove, Bolyard said diversification is key to moving forward — she and her husband have also started their own meat business, with sales at local farmer’s markets.

“I think it’s good to not have our apples in one basket,” Bolyard said.

Shrinking farmland

While the big spreads of large crops are dwindling in the county, others are trying to make do with what they have — people like Ben Thompson and Kathryn Rowley, of Willow Bourne Farms.

Located at the base of North Mountain (Buck Hill, as the locals call it), the two grow and produce about a hundred products for sale at local farmers’ markets. And that’s just on five acres of land.

Unlike the Orrs, whose roots are fused to the soil of Berkeley County like the trees they grow, Rowley and Thompson are newcomers — she’s originally from Boone County, he’s from Western Pennsylvania.

But they needed a place to sell their products. And while there are long-standing farmers’ markets in Charles Town and Shepherdstown, Martinsburg never really had one.

With a few other local producers, the couple helped start the Martinsburg Farmer’s Market. Now, after years of sweating in blazing parking lots selling their wares, the farmer’s market has a permanent home in the Martinsburg Roundhouse, an old railroad interchange that was the starting point for the first nationwide strike in the country.  Many of the regular vendors are first generation farmers, just like them.

Rowley said they’ve gotten nothing but support from the established farmers in the area.

“I think the bigger farms like your Orrs have a bit of nostalgia because it reminds them of their grandfather or their great-grandfather selling produce on the side of the road,” Rowley said. “They’re not working to put people out of business — they’re rooting for us.”

A housing development encroaches on fields and farmland. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

And the support for the market has been a mix of folks. Thompson and Rowley said they get visitors from the city of Martinsburg who don’t have fresh foods within walking distance. They’ve also benefited from the influx of people who usually live in houses built where farmland used to be: people who moved in from Northern Virginia looking for local foods.

“They’re more health conscious and are trying not to support Big Ag,” Rowley said.

Farmland preservation

While Berkeley County has seen runaway growth and loss of farmland, the county was the first in the state to establish a farmland protection program in 2003 — now there’s a statewide program and 17 county-run organizations.

With no zoning in the county, the protection program is one of the few tools for “responsible growth,” according to county director Resa Ingram-Orsini, a fourth-generation farmer herself.

The program is pretty straightforward: if a farmer wants their land to remain for agricultural use forever, they apply to the board. If they are selected for farmland protection, the board does a survey of the plot and conducts two appraisals — one at a farmland rate and one at either commercial or residential rate. The difference between the two values is paid to the farmer (up to $6,500 an acre).

In exchange, the farmer has an easement written into the property designating it for farming and agricultural practices only.

Ironically, the program is possible because of the increased development in the area. It’s funded through the transfer tax on property sales — a “Catch-22” according to board chairman Tom Gleason. After two decades in existence, 80 farms totalling 8,500 acres are under protection.

One of them is Appalachian Orchard, which in 2022 became the first working orchard in the state to undergo farmland protection, putting 350 acres of the company’s land into the easement.

Bolyard called it a “decision of the heart.”

“The downfall of the program is because the land is strictly agricultural, it’s worth less when you get a loan from the bank,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter — we did this because I have three kids and if they want to get into farming, they’ll have the land to do it.”

But most of the county’s 73,000 acres of farmland still isn’t protected, and developers have been grabbing up land in the Shenandoah Valley portion of the county, where water and sewer hookups abound.

That’s where, just west of Inwood, White House owns a massive orchard that adds up to nearly a third of the county’s remaining orchard land.

White House is still growing apples there. But during the building boom of the early aughts, a small subdivision started to bisect a portion of the land. In recent years, that subdivision has almost cut the land in half with houses.

A couple years ago, the land was put up for auction, cut into five parcels of land. At the time, it was advertised in The Washington Business Journal and other D.C. Metro publications as a perfect opportunity for more home building and development.

The land didn’t sell, this time, but could be relisted in the future.

But across the road is another orchard, owned by the Appalachian Orchard Company. This one, though smaller, is a 250 acre spread with trees dating back to the late 1980s.

“It isn’t protected yet,” Bolyard said. “But the key word there is yet.”

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.