Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

The elephant in the room couldn’t have been any bigger.

It was the first day of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association’s annual Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference, Aug. 18-19 in Chicago, in a year in which crop losses east of the Mississippi were the worst since World War II.

Michigan — 15% of last season’s crop. New York, better but still bad — a little less than half the size of the 2011-12 crop.

So it was fitting that Mark Seetin, U.S. Apple’s director of regulatory and industry affairs, kicked off Outlook ‘12 by welcoming the elephant to the room.

Before he said a word, Seetin produced three squeeze toys in the shape of red delicious apples and placed them on the podium of the Chicago Ritz-Carlton’s ballroom.

“Stress balls,” he said. The instantaneous response to those two words caught him a bit off guard.

“I didn’t think that would get much of a laugh, but it did,” he said.

And with that, the tone for the two-day meeting was firmly set. I realized right away I would not be seeing U.S. Apple officials and growers from other states patting Wolverines, Spartans and Empire Staters on the back and offering them Kleenexes all conference long.

The devastating April freeze was what it was, nobody could do anything about it, and attendees weren’t going to waste their time hanging their heads and looking for sympathy.

There was so much else to talk about — things growers do have control over.

Like the ever-changing varietal picture, for instance.

Seetin, in his opening speech, gave the latest update in the up/down escalator story of the red delicious and the gala.

Not that many years ago, red volumes were quadruple gala volumes. In 2012-13? Think of one of those fast starters in the Olympic 100 final who begins to see flashes of green and yellow at about the halfway point of the race.

Reds should make up about 29% of all apples this season, Seetin said. At 21%, with a Usain Bolt-like bullet, are galas.

Todd Fryhover, president of the Wenatchee-based Washington State Apple Commission, took up the theme a couple of hours after Seetin, at an industry roundtable.

According to Fryhover, that 70-meter-or-so point of the race where galas take over for good could come around 2018, when Washington expects to have more gala than red delicious trees in the ground.

Export growth will drive a big part of varietal expansion, Fryhover said.

Take India, for example. Washington exports set a record last season, and a big reason for that is India, which in a decade has gone from the 16th-biggest to the third-biggest market.

The vast majority of the apples India imports are red delicious, but that’s not a fact in the red’s favor, Fryhover said.

Instead, it shows that India hasn’t yet been tapped for other varieties. When it is, look out.

Another speaker at that roundtable, Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., touched on another hot topic concerning varieties — namely, the profusion of them.

Most retailers already carry more apple varieties than you can count on two hands. Yet states like Washington are constantly coming up with new ones. Ten to 12 licensed, or “managed,” varieties are in production in the state now, she said.

It was with refreshing candor that Wolter mused on their fate.

“That will be a big challenge,” she said, referring to the quest for additional space on retail shelves.

“How many varieties will the market bear? We’re already getting some pushback from retailers, and now we’re coming to them with new varieties.”

A few of many interesting — and yes, non-freeze-related — takeaways from U.S. Apple 2012.

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