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US apple growers fight for slice of own market

China now produces many of the apples used in making juice in the US, which is hurting domestic growers.

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Here in the Hudson River Valley, the heart of East Coast apple country, untimely weather and brutal bouts of hail have destroyed more than half of the region's apple crop. Nationwide, the battered autumn harvest will yield the smallest crop in 16 years, experts say.

When asked about long-term threats to their trade, however, farmers here dismiss the blighting force of frost and hail with casual resignation. The most serious danger to their livelihoods, one more ominous than any storm, will not come from the sky, they say, but from the East.

A massive influx of apples from China into the world market over the past five years, say apple growers, has turned their industry on its head. The Asian superpower now grows more than five times as many apples as the US, and sells them at a much lower price.

The impact has been softened by a tariff imposed by the Clinton administration on Chinese apple concentrate, which is used to make apple juice. But a likely decision by the federal government next month to lift the tariff will inevitably cause farmers' profits to fall.

The plight of the American apple farmer is emblematic of an economic squeeze occurring across American agriculture. In an effort to promote free trade, the US has opened itself up to a huge surge of food imports in the past decade, giving American shoppers a wider selection of products to choose from at lower prices.

One result: Farmers working in trades that are American as, well, apple pie, are struggling to get their products stocked in US grocery stores.

"The US continues to have more and more competitors on the global market that can sell their products for less than what it costs us to produce," says to Steven Blank, author of "The End of American Agriculture in the American Portfolio".

With eight orchards spread across the cool, sloping lower valley of the Hudson, Walden apple farmer Jeffrey Crist finds that his fortunes have historically hinged on the graces of nature.

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