RINGGOLD -- John D. Rinehart represents the third generation to operate the family apple orchard near this rural Washington County community, and the 29-year-old grower hopes someday to pass the business on to his children.
But the numbers indicate that it may be harder for "J.D.," as Mr. Rinehart is called, to maintain the business than it was for his father and his grandfather before him.
A new survey by the Maryland Department of Agriculture shows that the state's normal apple crop is about 40 million bushels, only half of what it was in the mid-1980s.
The study shows that nearly 30 orchards in the north-central part of the state, including Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Washington counties, have disappeared since 1980. This loss was offset somewhat by a gain of 15 orchards in Southern Maryland.
Over the same period, the amount of land planted in apple trees has fallen 43 percent, to 3,205 acres.
Commenting on the findings, M. Bruce West, director of the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, said apple production dropped 55 percent in 1987, to 38 million bushels, when the trees were hit by a hard frost at a critical time, and the industry has never recovered.
Production rose to 52 million bushels in 1988, but has ranged between 33 million and 43 million bushels over the past four years. The 1991 crop, the latest for which figures are available, brought Maryland growers $6.3 million. This was an increase over recent years, but well below orchard sales of $9.6 million in 1986.
There are a number of reasons for the decline, said John H. Rinehart, 66, the father of J.D. and the chairman of the Maryland State Apple Commission for 12 years until stepping down recently. The commission is a state agency established by the legislature in 1947 to tax growers on their earnings for a fund to promote the industry.
"In 1985," he said, "better than 50 percent of the commercial production in the state was west of Hagerstown. Today that production is practically all gone."
Some of the biggest orchards in the state, including Hepburn Orchard, a 1,400-acre spread near Hancock that had produced upward of 400,000 bushels a year, have gone out of business.
Their biggest problem was labor, Mr. Rinehart said. He explained that the bulk of the harvesting was crammed into a two-month period -- September and October -- and orchards in Maryland were competing with those in a half-dozen other East Coast states for a limited supply of labor.
The shortage of labor, along with a change in growers' marketing practices, also has led to smaller farms, said Mr. Rinehart. A number of growers are cutting back on operations and putting more emphasis on selling fresh fruit and less on supplying processors, traditionally the major buyer of their crop.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Rinehart said, 60 to 70 percent of the state production went to processors to be made into applesauce or juice. Today less than half goes to this market.
Economics is also contributing to this trend. While prices vary, due to supply and demand, Mr. Rinehart said that growers get an average of $4 a bushel for apples sent to processing plants and about $8 a bushel for those sold to grocery stores and marketed directly from the farm at roadside stands.
Mr. West noted several other reasons for the state's shrinkin apple supply. He said rising land values have enticed growers into selling acreage to developers for housing construction. "They could get a better return selling their land to developers," he said, "than growing apples."
The Rinehart Orchard, at the base of South Mountain, cover about 400 acres and is one of the largest in the state.