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New Grading Shed Polishes Apple Growers' Profits

VELARDE - Gene Lopez, a Velarde-based grower with 400 apple trees, expects to earn 50 percent more for his fruit this year thanks to a new cooperative grading shed based at his orchard.

Bushels of Gala apples are processed through an apple grader at the New Mexico Apple Council's grading and packing shed in Velarde. The grading machine automatically cleans, polishes and sorts apples by size. (10/26/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The shed operates like a small, semiautomated factory where bushels of raw apples are polished, graded for quality and size, packed into 42-pound boxes and stored in a commercial refrigerator for shipment to market.

The New Mexico Apple Council and New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service set up the shed to help small-scale growers meet the quality standards necessary to sell apples to government-run school lunch programs. Such programs pay 50 percent more for the fruit than most commercial retailers.

"In an average year, I get $10 a box for my apples, but with the grading shed, I can sell my apples for $15 a box for use in the school lunch programs," Lopez said.

He expects to earn about $6,000 for the 400 boxes of apples he'll harvest this season. "I'll get about $2,000 more for my apples this year," he said. "It's a good deal for me."

Benjamin Griego, another Velarde-based grower, will process 1,200 of his 1,500 boxes of apples through the apple shed this year. He expects to earn about $6,000 more from his 6-acre orchard than in other seasons.

"This project is great," Griego said. "It gives me a guaranteed market and a better price for my apples."

Until now, only large-scale growers who could afford their own grading sheds had taken advantage of school lunch programs, said Craig Maple, a marketing specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

"To sell to the schools, growers need to grade, sort and box apples according to strict quality standards," Maple said. "By working through the shed, small-scale growers can abide by those standards."

Maple is helping growers sell their apples to the U.S. Department of Defense, which buys about $400,000 in fresh produce annually in New Mexico for distribution to public schools. He is also helping the growers sell apples directly to Santa Fe Public Schools, which spends about $18,000 annually on locally grown produce for its Farm to School program. Some apples are being sold to Hayes Middle School in Albuquerque as part of a new pilot program to improve student nutrition.

"These programs run from mid-August to mid-November as apples are being harvested, so it's a great market for producers," Maple said.

About 10 growers process their apples through the shed, but more are expected to join as the marketing program expands, said Del Jimenez, an Extension agricultural specialist with NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project, based in Alcalde. To use the shed, growers must be dues-paying members of the Apple Council.

NMSU loaned a mechanical apple grader, worth about $12,000, to the council for the shed. Extension offered training and safety workshops to operate the machine, and provided supervision for apple grading and packing.

"We're still working out the quirks," Jimenez said. "This is the first year we've got the apple shed up and running, so the program is only just getting started."

The grading machine works like a conveyor belt with three sections. First, apples are pulled through a shallow basin for washing and polishing. Next, they move along a chain-link belt with 2.5- and 3-inch openings. The apples drop through into bins for sorting. Finally, growers inspect apples individually for quality and then pack them into boxes.

"We're looking for a clean apple?-no worms, no markings, no damage of any kind," Jimenez said. "We sort the apples by size because the schools only want apples between 2.5 and 3 inches in diameter. The kids generally won't eat larger apples, so the schools buy them small to avoid wasting fruit."

The growers pack the larger apples for sale at farmers markets and other retail outlets, Jimenez said.

By sorting larger apples into uniform boxes, the growers may find it easier to market them, said Ron Walser, an Extension fruit specialist assisting with the project.

"Many retailers will prefer the unified product that results from classifying and grading the apples," Walser said.

The Apple Council bought a scale to weigh boxes at the shed, and a $6,000 commercial refrigerator for storage. The council also provides the boxes, which growers can stamp with individual farm names.

"The shed helps us meet our goals of providing apple growers with education, technical assistance and better marketing opportunities," said Ed Costanza, president of the Apple Council.