(Nov. 13) VIENNA, Va. — Apple shippers entered November with their lowest fresh-market holdings for that month since the 1980s, giving industry members hope for another season of f.o.b.s that surpass the low prices encountered in the late 1990s.

“It sets up the scenario and the conditions for a very strong fresh market,” said Jim Cranney, U.S. Apple Association vice president, who prepared the apple holdings report, the first of the 2003-04 season.

“There are plenty of apples to go around, and an adequate supply,” Cranney said. “There’s excellent quality out there. This is not a shortage situation, but what we’ve done is get a lot closer to the place where the industry can really make a profit and the growers can get more respectable returns for their crops.”

The 85.5 million bushels held in storage on Nov. 1 was 4% lower than last year’s numbers at that time, and Cranney said it’s the lowest in at least 13 years. After shorter crops caused in part by weather last year, states in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest posted increases of 3.2 million 42-pound cartons, 320,000 cartons and 2.57 million cartons, respectively, on Nov. 1.

Those figures, however, were more than offset by a 9.4 million-carton drop in the Northwest’s holdings. Each 42-pound carton equals a bushel.

“We predicted a short crop, and it picked out considerably shorter than we predicted,” said Neil Galone, vice president of sales for Yakima, Wash.-based Snokist Growers, about previous state estimates.

Washington’s harvest started earlier this year, but Galone attributed most of Snokist’s 13% increase in early-season shipments to strong demand.

“Prices aren’t that much stronger (from last year), because we still have to have something competitive to offer the retailers,” he said. “… I think the returns to the growers are getting better, but it’s really variety specific.”

Red delicious prices have been strengthened by lighter supplies and a good early-season export market, said John Rice, sales manager at Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa. U.S. red delicious holdings at the start of the month were 35.56 million cartons, compared to 46.19 million cartons at the same time in 2002. Since 1999, red delicious holdings dropped 35% as other varieties have received more consumer and retailer interest.

The pink lady variety is included in the report for the first time, and its 1.42 million cartons is more than eight other varieties. In Michigan, Norm Klein, sales manager at Sparta-based Jack Brown Produce Inc., noted an increase in honeycrisp production and sales.

Diana Aguilar, executive director of the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Board, Harrisburg, said larger sizes will mean a higher packout than first anticipated.

“The demand is definitely picking up,” Aguilar said. “Some of the shippers are shipping fairly prolifically, and some are being a little more reserved, but that’s not unusual.”