Feb 14, 2013
Washington harvests record apple crop

For Washington state’s apple growers, 2012 turned out to be a record year. According to industry estimates, they harvested 129 million bushels of fresh apples last fall – smashing the previous record of 109 million bushels set in 2010, according to the Washington Apple Commission (WAC).

As of February 2013, apple shipments were still moving at a record pace, and pricing was good for the 2,000 or so members of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, which represents about two-thirds of the state’s apple growers, said Dan Kelly, the association’s assistant manager.

Traditionally, about one-third of the state’s crop goes to export markets, the rest to domestic markets. That balance was holding steady this season. Shortages out East, in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere meant less competition and better prices, Kelly said.

“It was the perfect moment for us to have a huge crop,” said Chris Scott, international trade specialist with WAC.

Finding enough workers to pick and pack such a huge crop was a challenge, but labor is a challenge every year, Kelly said.

Kelly wasn’t sure if the state could expect another huge crop in 2013, but he said 120 million bushels or so might be a realistic estimate for the next few years. The Washington apple industry goes through a growth spurt every few years, and 2012 was one of those years, he said.

Labor wasn’t a problem for Oasis Farms in Prosser, Wash., which is a pretty diversified operation. Workers move from crop to crop from March through November, so they tend to stick around, said owner Brenton Roy.

The farm’s apple crop, mostly sold fresh, was probably 15 percent bigger than the initial estimate. Fruit size was larger than expected, too, which contributed to the extra bins harvested. Quality also was up. It was a good year for Washington growers – as long as they weren’t hit by hail, Roy said.

Some of Washington’s growing areas got nailed by hail, but the damage was localized – and due to apple shortages out East, growers picked hail-damaged fruit they wouldn’t have picked in other years, Scott said.

Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs for the U.S. Apple Association (USApple), said growing conditions in Washington state were particularly good last year, leading to good fruit size.

A greater supply of apples from Washington is good for the industry in general, Seetin said. Even though the overall U.S. crop was down, there were no supply shortages as of February, thanks to the bump from the Northwest state. Even Eastern growers who yielded half a normal crop did OK, thanks to strong prices. But a grower from Michigan who lost 90 percent of his crop to freezes would hardly call it a good year, he said.

“It was a weird year,” Seetin said. “A very, very strange year.”

Last summer, people in the industry weren’t expecting such a large crop from Washington. At the USApple Outlook Conference last August, the industry estimated a total crop (fresh and processing) of about 145 million bushels for the state. As of February, Scott said the total had risen to about 153 million bushels.

Washington’s huge 2012 crop reflects an industry trend of ever-growing yields, driven by higher-density acres, earlier varieties and better storage technology. The 2012 harvest season was exceptionally long, too, which won’t happen every year. The length of the season probably bumped the crop up at least 10 million bushels, said Desmond O’Rourke, an economics professor at Washington State University and a fruit industry consultant.

For 2013, O’Rourke expects a fresh crop of about 120 million bushels – which might become the new normal. Within a decade, however, 130 million bushels could become the standard. The industry is going to need to find new export markets to deal with all of those apples, he said.

Prices stayed strong this season, thanks to a general shortage of high-quality fruit, but that situation won’t last. When the New York, Michigan and Ontario apple industries get back to normal, pricing is going to be a challenge, O’Rourke said.

“That’s when the rubber will hit the road.”

Matt Milkovich

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