YAKIMA, Wash. — Faced with declining domestic apple consumption, Northwest growers should look more to export markets.

That was the message at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting on Dec. 6 in market analyst Desmond O’Rourke’s keynote address.

Per-capita apple consumption across the country has dropped 1% each year for the last 20 years, said O’Rourke, chief executive officer of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

“The fresh industry is barely holding its own.”

New varieties have pulled up average prices, but f.o.b.s, in real values, have seen little change, he said.

While berry sales rose even during the recession, “apples took a beating,” O’Rourke said.

Industry salvation lies in exports to meet demands of a skyrocketing global population with rising incomes, he said.

The brightest spots will be China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia.

But the domestic picture may not be quite so dire, said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, speaking later in the day on the “buy local” phenomenon.

Last year, New York growers sold nearly half the state’s fresh apple crop directly to consumers, either through farmers markets, on-farm stands or community-supported agriculture groups.

Those are primarily cash sales, making figures hard to track, Allen said.

Domestic consumption may look flat, he said, but “at the end of the year, we’re all out of apples.”

Retailers’ reactions to the locally grown movement, including prominent store placement of displays featuring photos of growers, are telling.

“If it wasn’t important to them, they wouldn’t do it,” Allen said.

“In our opinion, it’s bigger than the organic craze, bigger than sustainable, bigger than anything going on in the last 18 months,” said Greg Corrigan, senior director of floral and produce at Raley’s Supermarkets in Sacramento, Calif.

The company pushes local supply connections where possible, but won’t forgo higher-quality items outside the “local” circle, he said. Raley’s defines that as a day’s truck drive from a store, he said.

How long consumer interest lasts is hard to say, he said, “But we expect it to have traction for a number of years.”