Pink Lady apples began harvesting a little late, says Alan Taylor, marketing director for Pink Lady America LLC.
Pink Lady apples began harvesting a little late, says Alan Taylor, marketing director for Pink Lady America LLC.

Washington growers harvested apples later and in smaller numbers than last year, but shipments set a break-neck pace early in the season.

Opinions vary on how long it can be sustained.

It’s still an enormous crop: 104.3 million boxes will pack and ship, according to a Dec. 1 estimate by the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association and Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association. That would make it the third-largest crop ever from the state, but still about 5 million cases lighter than last year’s record.

“We’ve got plenty of promotable volumes on all varieties right now and for some months,” Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash., said in mid-December.

“Last week the state shipped 3.2 million 42-pound boxes of apples, the biggest week we’ve ever had. We’re shipping like crazy. Demand is up but volumes are there to meet that demand.”

“As we got into September,” said Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers, “the apple crop was about 10 days late. The crop from last year sold tremendously fast. Usually there’s a bit of carryover as you start to pack the fresh crop. There wasn’t this year, and that gap created such a huge demand that it’s never let up.”

Washington accounts for the majority of U.S. production.

“Things change. We’ll see what kind of crop we have left,” Pepperl said. “With a down crop this year, you could see movement and demand outstripping supply as we go forward in the spring. I think there will be opportunities in the spring for smaller apples. You could see retailers promoting bags or tote bags, pricing at 3 pounds for $4 on bulk fruit, that sort of thing.”

David Nelley, apple and pear category director at Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, sees an opportunity coming for imports.

“We anticipate the switch from domestic to imported apples in the spring to be fairly dramatic given the issues the Washington fruit may face as it stores,” Nelley said. “Washington’s harvest was late, and it took place on the heels of a cold snap. We see good opportunities for fruit from Chile and New Zealand in 2012.”

“Nationwide, we had a good crop,” said Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va. “Some areas were hurt by frost and Washington was late, but everyone did get their crop picked.”

The association reported U.S. fresh apple holdings Dec. 1 were up 3% over the year before, from 91.3 million to 94.4 million bushels.

Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, others

The popular Honeycrisp variety, which began shipping in the fall, could have more staying power this year.

“We plan to have supplies into April this season, a full month longer than last year,” said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co. “Unless of course consumer demand pulls the crop through faster than anticipated.”

Rainier Fruit is the largest North American grower of conventional and organic Honeycrisp, she said.

Varieties in smaller supply this year, Wolter said, include golden delicious and fuji, leftover from last winter because of weather issues; and red delicious, braeburn, jonagold and Cameo, because of acreage reductions.

“Honeycrisp and others are up, supporting our position that we all need to refresh our apple category promotional strategy,” she said.

As a result, Wolter also predicts that retailers will shift from one-variety to multivariety ads and promotions, combining traditional and newer apples.

Pink Lady was the last variety to come off the trees, said Alan Taylor, marketing director for Pink Lady America LLC, Wenatchee.

“When the apple doesn’t start harvesting until late October or early November, it becomes a challenge,” Taylor said. “It was a nerve-wracking start for the industry, at least two weeks late.”

The crop is down 7% to 2.7 million boxes from 2.9 million a year ago, Taylor said. Despite the late harvest, early Pink Lady shipments exceeded targets.

Smaller fruit

The late harvest in Washington — a result of labor shortages and cold weather — will mean smaller fruit.

“Supplies have been somewhat tight, especially in the primary retail sizes,” said Eric Patrick, Yakima, Wash.-based marketing director for Grant J. Hunt Co., Oakland, Calif.

“It tended to run about a size smaller. On some varieties there will be challenges with that, but as a retailer you can be flexible about it. Retailers might just size down from 88 to 100 or 100 to 113. We’re looking at some additional bagged opportunities in January and February because of size.”

Even if it’s minimally smaller fruit, Patrick expected the pace of shipments out of Washington to hold or quicken in January.

“There’s always a push for healthy eating in the first part of the year,” he said. People go on diets and (make) New Year’s resolutions. We’re trying to set up ads around that. We think MyPlate is good too. You’re seeing MyPlate appear in some ads.”