by James Rada, Jr.
It took a single apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head for him to come up with the law of gravity. Imagine what he might have come up with if he had been sitting under a tree in Southern Pennsylvania, where millions of bushels of apples are harvested annually?
Apples are an essential part of Adams and York counties’ economies. Adams is the No. 1 apple producer in Pennsylvania (producing 7 million bushels annually) and No. 6 in the country (out of 3,079 counties), according to the U.S. Census for Agriculture.
“If you add in the apples produced in the adjoining areas that are part of the larger South Mountain Fruit Belt, including eastern Franklin County, southern Cumberland, and northern York County, you would account for about 75 percent of all the apples produced in our state,” John Rice, a seventh-generation apple grower, wrote in a Gettysburg Times article last year.
York County might harvest far fewer apples than its western neighbor, but it has it’s own claim to fame: It is where the favorite York Imperial apple was first created.
Commercially, the York Imperial is only processed now by Knouse Foods, the largest apple processor in the country and the largest employer in Adams County. Its apple products are sold under brand names including Musselman’s, Lucky Leaf, Speas Farm, Mott’s USA, Zeigler’s Cider and others. Knouse has found that the York Imperial is juicy, holds its texture well through processing, and is superior for cooking.
According to the Gettysburg Times, apples were first grown in the county in 1845, but they weren’t commercially produced until 1895. They were a staple in the diets of the German immigrants in the area.
According to a 1937 Times article, “the history of commercial fruit growing began when Noah Sheely, [an early pioneer of apple growing in the region] visited the Chicago World’s fair and told the first commercial buyers of Adams fruit.”
The article also noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were two waves of apple tree planting, during which the number of apple trees in the county increased sharply. The first wave happened between 1898 and 1900, and the second between 1907 and 1910.
The results were predictable: As the Gettysburg Times noted in 1911 — the season after the second wave of tree planting — “Had all the apples harvested and shipped from Adams County this year been placed in freight cars and made into one train, the line would have extended for seven and five sixths miles or almost from the station at Gettysburg to the station at Biglerville.”
And some of those apples were very well traveled. Adams County shipped its produce to places as distant as St. Petersburg, Russia. Among other countries that enjoyed Adams County apples were Germany, Italy, Austria, England, Denmark, and Spain.
Adams County’s reputation for growing apples spread throughout this country, too. In 1937, 500 fruit growers from West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania visited Adams County. They toured orchards and apple processing plants in a caravan of more than 100 vehicles. They also enjoyed a lunch at Arendtsville Union Park sponsored by the Adams County Fruit Growers Association. There they heard remarks from county farmers about their operations and discussed why conditions were optimal for apple growing in Adams County.
Tara Baugher, a tree fruit educator with the Penn State Extension, said there was a good reason apples do well in this area. “We have the ideal microclimates. You will very rarely find a year where we lose the majority of our crops to spring frost.”
The York Imperial
The York County native York Imperial is a characteristically lopsided apple that has a tart yet sweet taste. It was developed in 1820 on Springwood Farm near York. In the 1950s, Andrew Jackson Downing called it the “imperial of keepers,” because of its long shelf life — hence the name.
The York Imperial also sweetens in taste over five to six months after it is picked, which made it an excellent product for export.
“They were a staple for many, many years in the processing industry,” Baugher said.
Apple products now generate about $580 million for the Adams County economy, according to an economic impact study conducted by the Chesapeake Group with Tischler Bise.
Baugher said that Pennsylvania apples are known for their flavor, and taste-testing has shown that Mid-Atlantic apples are more flavorful than others — and that makes them more popular with buyers.
Contemporary local orchards may grow up to 50 varieties of apples, according to Baugher. These are smaller orchards that are planting varieties such as Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp to sell to farmers’ markets. Larger farms grow fewer varieties (around half a dozen) and sell to processors. Smaller farms often find that the “fresh market” is more profitable for them.
The younger generation of farmers tends to plant dwarf trees that allow them to plant up to 10 times more trees per acre. These trees are easier to manage and produce earlier with higher yields.
Pennsylvania Apple Facts
- Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s leading industry. Apples are the state’s fourth-largest agricultural commodity.
- Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the country in apple production, behind Washington, New York and Michigan.
- Apples are grown in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, with Adams, Franklin, Bedford, and York counties having the highest concentration of orchards.
- There are 20,000 acres of apple-bearing land in Pennsylvania. Each of those acres yields approximately 23,000 pounds of apples.
- Pennsylvania’s typical crop yield is between 10 million and 11 million bushels, or approximately 440 million pounds.
- Adams County apple production accounts for 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s total crop yield.
- There are approximately 100 apple varieties grown in Pennsylvania. About 20 of those varieties are marketed commercially.
- 65 percent of Pennsylvania’s annual crop is processed (sauce, cider, juice, slices, etc.), while 35 percent is sold for fresh consumption.
- Adams County is home to Knouse Foods, the largest fruit processor in Pennsylvania.
- In 2013, Pennsylvania exported fresh-market apples to 12 different countries. Central American countries and India represent the largest export markets for Pennsylvania.