Huge crops a ‘new normal’ for Washington applesIf you’d predicted that on May 1 there’d be 21% more U.S. fresh-market apples in storage than the year before, people might have accused you of hitting the hard cider.

Of course, they also wouldn’t have believed you if you’d said Washington’s fresh crop was going to fall just short of 130 million boxes after the extent of last year’s damage to apple crops in Michigan and New York became clear.

As of early May, Washington was on pace to ship 129.6 million boxes this season, shattering the previous record by more than 20 million boxes, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House.

Washington grower-shippers and officials knew they’d have a big crop, but not this big. After July hailstorms, the estimate was in the 100 million to 110 million box range, and many marketers were wondering how they were going to scramble to fill orders in the hard-hit East.

Then harvest came. By November, the estimate was back to the pre-hail 120 million box range. And over the winter, another 10 million got tacked on to that.

But the 2012 crop is no fluke, Kelly said. Don’t expect volumes to return to pre-2012 levels — history has shown otherwise.

“Every five to seven years, the crop has jumped to another level, and it appears that’s what’s happened again,” he said. “We can expect this to be the first of a new cycle.”

For the past several years before this one, volumes were in the 100-(million) to 109-(million) box range,” Kelly said.

Before that, there was a period where they regularly topped out in the 80 millions.

Next year, according to early estimates, the crop will likely be in the 120-million box range, Kelly said.

Given Michigan’s and New York’s problems, the huge 2012-13 crop couldn’t have come at a better time, he said, a sentiment others in the Washington industry shared.

“The category this year has been tremendous for retailers, consumers and growers,” said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash. “Good sales, good quality and a good mix of sizes.”

So will 120-million box crops become the new standard?

“That’s a lot closer to truth than fiction,” Nager said. “There are new varieties, new plantings are starting to mature, and they’re in high-density, high-yield trees.”

With consumption in the U.S. fairly stagnant, and new varieties cannibalizing sales from older ones, marketers will have to lean more on exports to find homes for all that fruit, Nager said.

“It’s going to pose some challenges here in the U.S. Export becomes a very valuable market.”

The 2013 crop likely won’t top the 2012 crop, said John Onstad of Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co.

But he agrees that volumes have reached a new plateau they won’t likely come down from. Next season’s crop, for instance, could top out near 120 million boxes, he said.

“This is the new normal.”

Markets strong through summer

Onstad expects a strong finish to the 2012-13 season.

“Right now we’re feeling very good about finishing the 2012 crop,” he said. “It appears that most varieties will go right up to the new crop.”

With the exception of braeburns and jonagolds, Sage Fruit won’t likely need any imports to fill the gaps heading into summer and fall harvests, Onstad said.

And with the possible exception of reds and fujis, markets for most Washington varieties should actually strengthen this summer, he said.

“We expect to see an uptick on a lot of things starting around June 1.”

Domex expects to ship all five of its main varieties — red delicious. golden delicious, granny smiths, fujis and galas — in promotable volumes up to the 2013 harvests, Nager said.

Red, golden and granny markets will likely stay steady for the balance of the deal, but gala and fuji markets should strengthen, Nager said.

With Southern Hemisphere apple imports down, Washington grower-shippers aren’t worried about moving through this year’s bumper crop, Kelly said.

“We’re pretty close to where we need to be, maybe slightly behind. The pricing’s not as good as it was, but it’s still pretty good.”