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Millions of U.S. apples were almost left to rot. Now, they'll go to hungry families

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There was a bumper crop of apples this year across the country this year, and now processors have too many to handle. With an oversupplied market, growers are now faced with an economic dilemma. Should they pay workers to pick their apples or simply leave them to rot? Alan Jinich went to West Virginia, where a dozen growers got last-minute support from the federal government to rescue their apples for charity.

ALAN JINICH, BYLINE: It's getting late in the harvest season here in Berkeley County, W.Va., and Carla Kitchen's team is in the process of hand-picking nearly half a million pounds of apples. In a normal year, Carla would sell to processors that make applesauce, concentrate and other products. But this year was different.

CARLA KITCHEN: Imagine 80% of your income is sitting on the trees, and the processor tells you they don't want them. So what do you do?

JINICH: For the first time in 36 years, Carla had nowhere to sell the bulk of her harvest. It could have been the end of her business, and she wasn't alone.

KITCHEN: This is not only a West Virginia problem this year. It's a Maryland problem. It's a Virginia, it's a North Carolina problem - everybody on the East Coast.

JINICH: Due to an excess supply of apples nationwide, growers this year were faced with a tough economic decision.

CHRISTOPHER GERLACH: Do we pay the labor to get these apples off the tree, or do we let them drop?

JINICH: That's Christopher Gerlach, director of industry analytics at USApple. He says the surplus this year was caused by many factors - fewer exports, several years of bumper crops and oversupplied juice processors that couldn't take any more apples.

GERLACH: Last year was so good that the price went down on processors, and they said let's buy while the buying's good. You know, these processors basically filled up their storage warehouses. It's just the market.

JINICH: While many growers in neighboring states left their apples to drop, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia got the USDA to step into his state, which only makes up 1% of the national market. The government bought $10 million worth of apples from a dozen West Virginia growers. Those apples were then donated to hunger-fighting charities across the country, from South Carolina and Michigan, all the way out to the Navajo Nation. A nonprofit called The Farmlink Project took care of more than half the surplus - 10 million pounds of apples filling nearly 300 trucks. One of these trucks loads up at Timber Ridge Fruit Farm in West Virginia. Kate Nelson from The Farmlink Project is watching with her team.

KATE NELSON: I think we started moving apples in mid-September, and now it's November, which might be the biggest food rescue in a small period that we've ever seen.

JINICH: Cordell Watt is a third-generation owner of the orchard.

CORDELL WATT: The program with Farmlink has really taken care of the fruit in West Virginia.

JINICH: Some of that fruit from Timber Ridge is now piling up at the So What Else food pantry in Bethesda, Md.

EMANUEL IBANEZ: I'm just bewildered.

JINICH: Emanuel Ibanez and the other volunteers are picking through crates, bagging fresh apples into family-sized loads.

IBANEZ: We have a warehouse full of apples, and I can barely walk through it. People are getting tired of apples at this point. It's not bad.

JINICH: In fact, it's great, says the pantry's executive director, Megan Joe.

MEGAN JOE: My coworkers are, like, Megan, do we really need this many? I'm, like, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JINICH: She says it's the largest shipment of produce they've ever distributed - 10 truckloads over the span of three weeks. And they had no trouble getting rid of the fresh apples.

JOE: The growing prices in the grocery stores are really tough for a lot of families, and it's honestly gotten worse since COVID.

JINICH: Following West Virginia's rescue program, the USDA announced an additional hundred-million-dollar purchase to relieve the apple surplus in other states around the country. This is the largest government buy of apples and apple products to date. But with the harvest window coming to an end, many growers have already left their apples to drop and rot. For NPR News, I'm Alan Jinich in Inwood, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alan Jinich
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