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WVU faculty awarded USDA grant to help apple growers tap snack market and add to profits

The old saying goes “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and a few West Virginia University faculty believe the adage holds true when looking at the potential for West Virginia’s apple growers to develop and market a unique food item that could become the hottest new snack — dried, smoked apple chunks.

Growers and other interested parties will soon learn about producing, marketing and selling the snack thanks to faculty from the WVU Extension ServiceWVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and the WVU School of Social Work who received a United States Department of Agriculture grant to develop and later deliver workshops around the state.

On the surface, the snack is a nutritious offering that combines the natural sweetness of West Virginia’s apples with a savory, pleasant smokiness. But, the bigger opportunity it provides is the ability for growers to reduce apple waste and crop spoilage, while increasing overall sales, by preserving the fruit and selling the shelf-stable product during the off season.

WVU Extension Service’s Food Safety and Preservation Specialist Litha Sivanandan said it’s a perfect opportunity that addresses two key areas — economic empowerment and nutrition.

“As we develop production techniques to ensure product quality of smoked apple snacks, we’re doing it with those in mind who wish to start or expand a food business,” she said. “There are areas within West Virginia where nutritious snacks may be hard to find, so by helping a local farmer consistently and safely produce a desirable product that they can sell within the community helps everyone take the right step forward.” 

According to the project’s researchers, West Virginia ranks ninth nationally in apple production but doesn’t have the access and the connections to sell fresh apples on a large, national scale. While growers sometimes struggle to sell fresh apples, only two percent of the apples grown in West Virginia are turned into value-added products. The snacks can help fill the void and give growers a unique product to market and bolster profits.

Advanced technology is one key to executing the potentially profitable plan.

“Now that we have developed these delicious snacks and the production recipe, we are developing technology that is both commercially viable at the small-business scale and very easy to adopt,” said Kaushlendra Singh, associate professor of wood science and technology. “We hope that adoption of our technology will reduce import of dried apples in the U.S, which was approximately 41 percent, or roughly $25 million worth, of total consumption in the past decade.”

The final piece of the puzzle to successfully delivering this program stems from feedback from Sivanandan’s previous workshops in food preservation — many participants are females who experience childcare or transportation issues that prevent them from attending workshops or applying what they learn.

Additionally, the team noted according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research West Virginia’s women have the third lowest employment rate in the U.S. and also experience the third highest wage gap.

The workshops will focus on facilitating learning for participants and working with them to ease those issues so they can take advantage of the opportunity — women in particular. That’s where Leslie E. Tower, a professor from the WVU School of Social Work, comes in to help. 

“This project is a chance to improve economic conditions, particularly for women in the agriculture industry,” Tower said. “The trainings and resources will help women create good-paying work for themselves.”

Tagged with Social Work