U.S. Apple predicts third-largest cropCHICAGO — Predicting the third-largest overall crop of apples, U.S. Apple Association leaders say the 2014-15 season will be challenging, but despite concerns of high production numbers and tight labor supply, there is an overriding optimism.

The association released production predictions on Aug. 22 at its annual Crop Outlook & Marketing conference at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. According to the association, total U.S. production will be 263.8 million 42-pound cartons, which is very close to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate, also released in August, of 259.2 million.

Estimates from individual regions are: 174.3 million 42-pound units from the west (compared to 174.5 million from the USDA estimate) 55.9 million in the east (54.4 from the USDA) and 33.6 million in the Midwest (30.3 million from the USDA). Washington, the largest producing state, has an estimated production of 162 million 42-pound units for overall production. The industry has cited 140.2 million units as an anticipated fresh pack this year.

Mark Nicholson, co-owner of Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, N.Y, and new chairman of the U.S. Apple Association, said there are trends in motion that will help all regions move more apples.

“I think there’s a lot of confidence coming into the crop this year, and as we’ve seen with a number of statistics that were shared at the show, the industry has done a tremendous job in handling larger crops,” Nicholson said.

The diversity of varieties and products (including the growing sliced-apple market) available in the apple segment and consolidation in the industry are factors, he said.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House (one of four Washington fruit associations that are merging into a single entity in September), said labor will be an issue but won’t cause much disruption of harvest schedules.

“The crop’s going to be spread out and we can spread the labor out,” Kelly said. “We’ve had big crops before and we’ve been able to manage it.”

What is likely to happen in high-production areas, Kelly said, is some selective harvesting, with the best fruit being picked first and sold at a premium.

“It will be interesting to see how much fruit is left on the trees,” Kelly said.

Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs, said the industry has a much better ability of marketing larger crops in recent years, and grower returns have been on a steady increase as well.

“In terms of the technology that’s applied, in terms of the better-quality fruit that we’re raising now, the feeling here is one of optimism, that in spite of the size of the crop, things look pretty good to us,” Seetin said.