Aug 25, 2021
California farms harvest season’s first fresh apples

Supplying the U.S. market with the first fresh-picked apples of the season remains an important niche for California growers. But competition from other production regions continues to sour prices, prompting growers to look to expand their business through exports.

Being first on the market tends to be more lucrative, and California apple farmers typically enjoy a three-week window – after imports from the Southern Hemisphere wane and before Washington state ramps up its harvest—in which supplies are sparse.

“We always try to get what we have out before Washington hits the market, because usually once they come online, the price tends to drop pretty significantly,” said Elizabeth Carranza, director of trade for the California Apple Commission.

Gala apples, harvest of which began in mid-July, now represent the largest commercial apple variety grown in the state. Photo: Ching Lee

But durability of apples and improved storage techniques have stretched carryover volumes from the Evergreen State, diminishing California growers’ early advantage.

Stored Washington apples from last season “can have considerable impact on the marketplace for California,” said Virginia Hemly Chhabra, a grower and handler in Sacramento County.

“If you’ve got something coming in from these later growing seasons that’s still here in the market, it’s generally going to be cheaper,” she added.

Apple harvest in the state started in mid-July with Gala, the earliest commercial variety to hit the market and now the state’s top-produced apple, according to commission data. It will be followed by Granny Smith, Fuji and Cripps Pink, also marketed as Pink Lady.

Growers are expected to produce about 1.3 million 40-pound boxes of apples this year, down from an estimated 1.4 million boxes in 2020, said Todd Sanders, the commission’s executive director. He attributed the slight dip to older trees being retired and new plantings that have not yet come into full production.

State apple orchards have fluctuated in recent years between 12,000 and 14,000 total acres. Plantings stood at 12,844 acres during the 2019-20 season, up from 12,229 in 2018-19, the commission reported. Almost every county in the state produces apples, but San Joaquin, Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties dominate, with about 2,000 acres each.

For the initial crop at least, growers have reported good fruit quality and yields, though sizing may be “a little bit off” due to the larger volumes and the heat, Sanders said.

“Because of the heat, the apples are going to be super, super sweet because they’re going to be higher in sugar content,” he said.

The biggest selling point for California apples is their freshness, he said, noting that apples from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere are “probably almost a year old at this point.” Growers here tend to “pick, pack and ship,” finishing harvest by October or November, Sanders said, though some apples will continue to ship through January.

Even though California ranks fifth in U.S. apple production – behind Washington, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania – it remains a leading apple exporter. About 25% of the state’s crop goes to foreign markets.

The state ships apples to 27 countries, with Canada, Mexico, Taiwan and Southeast Asia being top destinations. During the 2019-20 season, the state exported 58,115 boxes. Canada represents nearly 80% of California’s apple export sales, though China – the world’s largest apple producer—has taken some of that market share in recent years, according to the commission.

Carranza said export shipments are expected to improve from last year, which saw them “down quite a bit” due to logistical challenges caused by the pandemic. With port delays still snarling shipments, she said, those impacts may continue this year.

Due to large apple supplies from Washington state and countries such as China, Carranza said bolstering export markets has become more important for California growers. She noted state apple exporters have felt ripple effects of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. apples set by China and India, key export markets for Washington apples. With less volume going to those markets, more apples end up in the domestic market, indirectly affecting California growers, Carranza said.

“(California growers) are definitely relying more on exports as the market becomes more saturated,” Carranza said.

A small-scale grower, Prevedelli Farms in Watsonville grows about 40 apple varieties, many of them heirlooms. It targets varieties that are harder to find and that are big on flavor, said farmer Geri Prevedelli. Even though the farm also grows commercial varieties such as Fuji and Granny Smith, she said “we grow some unusual apples that other people don’t have.”

The farm typically begins picking Gravenstein in mid-July, but heavier fog in the region this year delayed fruit ripening and harvest by two to three weeks, Prevedelli said. She noted yields are down due to lack of winter chill hours, which affects fruit set.

Because the farm sells most of its fruit at farmers markets, Prevedelli said she’s able to talk to her customers about what they like. Whereas grocery store shoppers tend to pick apples that are flawless in appearance, she said farmers market customers are more willing to look past cosmetic imperfections in favor of flavor.

Prevedelli acknowledged that heirloom varieties are harder to grow, and it takes “a large commitment to raise a tree,” noting the five to seven years for trees to reach production.

“That’s why you see people going into berries and vegetables, which are a lot faster turnaround for your acres,” she said.

Ching Lee, California Farm Bureau Federation

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