(Nov. 14, 2:51 p.m.) Apple producers hope consumers are thinking of an apple — or two — a day as a bumper crop hits the fresh market.

The Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association reported fresh apple holdings totaling 113.6 million bushels on Nov. 1 — a 9% increase over the past five years’ average and 13% more than 2007. The association released the report Nov. 12.

That’s bolstered by another record crop from Washington growers. The Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and the Yakima Valley Grower Shipper Association estimated the crop at 108.9 million bushels, a 10% increase over previous estimates.

That’s almost 4 million bushels more than the previous record of 105 million bushels, set in 2004-05.

Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima, Wash.-based Yakima Valley Grower Shipper Association said growers initially predicted small fruit because of cold weather in April.

“It was an exceptionally nice, warm fall, and when you get near harvest time and the weather’s perfect, each individual apple can grow an extra size. And that means a 10% increase in volume,” he said.

Retail prices have been holding steady so far this season, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics.

The average retail price for red delicious apples through September was well above last year and the average for the past five years. It held steady at slightly more than $1.55 a pound compared to just more than $1.20 a pound in September 2007 and about $1.17 a pound for the average over the past five years.

No worries here

Washington shippers aren’t too concerned about the volume of apples to move, said Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers.

“Frankly, this is the crop we’ve been waiting for, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Queen said. “We are excited about this season and its opportunities.”

Lower volumes out of other growing regions and in competing fruits should help movement, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc.

“There are always concerns when you have a full crop, but there are some other crops that aren’t doing as well,” Pepperl said. “Oranges are down a little bit, and Michigan apples are down.”

The industry also has changed quite a bit over the past couple of years, Pepperl said.

“We had 105 million boxes several years ago, and the mix wasn’t so good because we had a lot of red delicious at the time,” he said. “We have a whole lot of new varieties now.”

Popular new varieties like the Honeycrisp and other trademarked varieties help to create excitement in the category.

“It’s not really the same crop we’re used to dealing with,” Pepperl said.

Ken Severn, interim president of the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee, said retailers should be excited about the opportunities available in the apple category this season.

“We’re going to aggressively market them, and we’ll be moving the crop with good value to the consumers,” he said. “It’s a good sign for retailers out there.”

Pepperl agreed.

“We’re going to be after promotions,” he said. “We’re pushing our retailers, and they want to be pushed.”

Smaller sizes

Retailers should be on the lookout for smaller size apples and adjust their displays accordingly, Queen said.

“There are fewer size 88 and larger apples this year and more size 100 and smaller,” he said. “If retailers don’t adjust their size profiles, they will find sharp increases in pricing for large apples while smaller apples will deliver category lift to those who take advantage of this year’s unique situation.”

Two varieties — granny smith and cripps pink — were particularly small this season, peaking at 113s and 100s, Mathews said.

“We’ll have to do some fairly significant promotions and encourage retailers to sell those effectively,” he said.

Demand in tough times

The apple industry is confident demand will continue to grow, even as consumers’ purse strings tighten.

“When people aren’t going out for as many lunches, that makes an apple in your lunch even more of a solution,” Pepperl said.

Apples are easy to store, transport and eat, which makes them a good value for consumers, Queen said.

“I don’t think anything is recession-proof, but apples are pretty close,” he said.

The export market is expected to remain strong, said Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer of U.S. Apple.

Apple exports eat up about 24% of the U.S. crop, Foster said Nov. 13.

“Over the past five years, fresh exports have expanded in volume, up 11 million boxes, and dollar value, up $362 million,” Foster said. “The export outlook depends in large part on purchasing power, overseas production and continued U.S. work to expand new markets.”

Global economic conditions are improving for many populations, which is helping the apple reach new markets, Queen said.

“As that happens they demand more and better quality fruit, like apples,” he said. “The fact that Washington State exports one-third of its ever-increasing crop is testament to the fact that demand continues to outstrip supply.”