LYNCHBURG -- Three Nelson County orchards are among nine throughout the state being awarded cost-share funds for contributing to the growing market of hard-cider apples.
Saunders Brothers, Drumheller's Orchard and Silver Creek Orchards each will receive up to $3,000 to reimburse costs associated with the effort.
The Nelson County Office of Economic Development and Tourism is administering the reimbursements for the program statewide on behalf of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Overall, $20,000 will be awarded, nearly half of which will go to Nelson County orchards.
"The project's goal is to increase the plantings of specialized hard-cider apple varieties in Virginia, giving our [artisan] hard cider producers access to the raw material they need," a news release from VDACS stated.
Maureen Kelley, Nelson County's director of economic development and tourism, said the program connects apple growers with in-state cideries, "so that we support the burgeoning industry."
"Because we had so many good applications, we thought it was important to give as many awards as we could."
To be eligible, farmers had to plant trees of the specialty hard-cider variety, such as Arkansas Black, Black Twig, Kingston Black or GoldRush apples.
The program reimburses the cider-apple producers 50 percent of their qualified costs, up to $3,000.
The original goal was to create seven new acres of cider apple orchards in Virginia. However, that goal has been far surpassed -- farmers in the program have committed to an estimated 31 acres, Kelley said.
About three of those acres will be GoldRush apples planted by Saunders Brothers.
Orchard Manager Bennett Saunders said the cost-share funds will be some help, but about 90 percent of the costs still will fall to the apple producers.
However, he believes there is demand for these varieties that make the effort worthwhile.
"There's a number of hard-cider producers that have popped up in the immediate area, and they told us they need certain varieties of apples. So we're trying to help meet that demand," Saunders said.
He said planting these varieties could be overdone, but "on a small-scale, on a niche market, I think it's a good idea."
Kelley said some apple growers didn't believe cideries would pay good rates for the varieties already being grown. So the cost-share funding acted as an incentive for farmers to plant specialty apples and help grow the industry.
It also introduced some to a market they may have not considered before. Most orchards are in the fresh market business, which means the aesthetics of their products are important. But, as Kelley said, cider apples don't have to be pretty.
"Even if the apples aren't perfect, a cider producer will still pay a good price," she said.
Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur, said in a news release, "The types of apples needed for cider are 'ugly and hard to grow' but are full of the tannin, acid and aroma needed for fine cider."
It will be a few years -- Kelley estimated three -- before the outcome of the project and success of the grant really can be seen.
Saunders said growers have to put down deposits on the apple trees about two years in advance, so they won't actually be planted until spring 2014.
It will take another two years -- until 2016 or 2017 -- before the trees begin producing a significant number of fruit.
"If they see that hard cider is profitable, hopefully they will be interested in continuing to grow these apples," Kelley said.
Saunders said he appreciates that the orchard can serve a demand in a local market.
"We're always looking for new outlets, and we're always looking for local outlets," he said. "I think this is a win-win."
Two Albemarle County farms were among the nine fund recipients. Potter's Craft Cider in Free Union will be awarded up to $500 and Highland Orchard Farm in Covesville will receive up to $750.
At a glance
Three Nelson County orchards are among nine in Virginia being awarded cost-share funds for contributing to the growing market of hard-cider apples. Overall, $20,000 will be awarded, up to $3,000 per farm. Nearly half of the money will go to Nelson County orchards.
» Saunders Brothers Inc., Piney River: $3,000
» Drumheller's Orchard, Lovingston: $3,000
» Silver Creek Orchards Inc., Tyro: $3,000
» Bowman Orchards LLC, Timberville: $3,000
» Showalter's Orchard & Greenhouse LLC, Timberville: $3,000
» Potter's Craft Cider, Free Union: $500
» Morris Orchard, Monroe: $3,000
» SAK Enterprises, Broadway: $750
» Highland Orchard Farm, Covesville: $750