Washington apple growers expect second-largest cropWENATCHEE, Wash. — The Washington fresh apple crop should fall short of the record 2012 crop but still represent the second-largest volume on record, most industry observers believe.

Harvest timing is about a week earlier than last year. Marketers said sizing generally should be good, heavy to 72s and 88s for many varieties. Labor supply should be adequate this fall, but weather events that would shorten the season could change that.

Marketers attending the U.S. Apple Association’s Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference on Aug. 22-23 in Chicago put the fresh crop in Washington at about 120 million cartons, short of the 129 million box crop from 2012. The total Washington apple crop, including processing apples, was put at 140 million bushels, down from the 155 million bushels in 2012 but 4% higher than five-year average.

Better-than-expected yields last year in new apple plantings saw crop expectations grow from about 109 million cartons early in the season to nearly 130 million cartons after all the fruit was under cover.

New apple orchards are planted at 1,200 to 1,400 trees per acre, which has pushed production levels to 80-90 bins of fruit per acre, said Mike Nicholson, salesman for Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee.

Historically, the normal yield would have been closer to 50-60 bins per acres.

“That’s what took people by surprise last year,” he said.

There is a little bit less acreage in the state now than 10 years ago — 167,489 acres in 2011 compared to 192,000 in 2011 — but much of it is high density, Nicholson said.

Before the season started, industry guesses about the 2013 fresh crop typically ranged from 115 million to 125 million cartons, with some higher and some lower projections.

Apples had good cell division at the beginning of the year, said Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers LLC.

Pepperl said it is possible the crop will be shorter than the trade believes.

“Big crops get bigger, and small crops get smaller,” he said.

Fruit size should be good, said Steve Reisenauer, sales manager for Sage Fruit, Yakima.

“We’ve had some hail damage in certain districts that will shorten the crop, but we had very good weather at bloom and post bloom, so we expect fruit size to be good, which adds to the crop size,” Reisenauer said.

Marketers said this year’s crop has shown varying yield trends, depending on variety.

Pink Lady, Honeycrisp and galas may be up, while reds and fujis may see the biggest declines compared with a year ago, Reisenauer said. All the other varieties may be slightly down.

Red delicious and fuji varieties are expected to be down compared with last year because of frost and poor pollination, said John Long, director of sales and operations in Union Gap for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos.

While those varieties are down, he said volumes of gala, cameos and granny smith are up above last year’s level — primarily because of increased production levels.

Red delicious and fuji also should size larger than last year because of their lighter set on the trees. Other varieties are also sizing well, Long said, and there will be good volume of fruit from size 72s to 100s.

National perspective

The substantial Washington apple crop will be harvested in a year when Michigan and New York apple growers have rebounded in strong fashion from extremely short crops in 2012.

The total U.S. apple crop was estimated by the U.S. Apple Association at 243 million bushels, up 13% from 216 million bushels last year and 9% above the five-year average.

In 1975, 40 million cartons for the Washington fresh crop was the norm. Now industry leaders say industry can successfully market 130 million cartons or more.

Washington state’s share of the U.S. fresh apple crop has generally risen over the past 30 years, according to USDA production statistics.

In 1980, Washington accounted for 46% of the total U.S. fresh apple crop, rising to 59% in 1999, 69% in 2000 and 72% in 2010.

Despite record volumes, the 2012 Washington apple crop received strong f.o.b. pricing. The 2012-13 crop (September through August) received an average f.o.b. of $24.73 per carton, up from $22.64 per carton in 2011-12, according to the USDA.

Retail reception

Marketers expect retailers will feature Washington apples regularly.

U.S. retailers will be hard-pressed to minimize Washington fruit based on performance, said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh.

“Washington did a very good job of driving the category, driving dollars and volume and we will want to an opportunity to keep some of that shelf space,” he said. Bigger sizes from Washington the opportunity to market tray pack fruit in retail displays.

The early harvest season may allow Washington state to be aggressive early in the season, said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan.

“We’re hoping to get in early and grab some of that shelf space and hang on to it,” he said. Riggan said there will be more competition from bag-sized apples in Michigan.

The lack of Midwest and East production resulted in artificially high floor for prices because of the demand for processing apples for fresh cut. Riggan said that will fall back to more normal patterns this year.

“The key thing for us to come into this year and try maintain the momentum we’ve carried through the summer,” he said. “We’re got to be smart to set our pricing not too high. We can reasonable and maintain that prices through the season, and buyers love consistency.”

The shift to galas has allowed the industry to begin shipping about a month earlier than when the state relied heavily on red delicious, Pepperl said, and that has opened opportunities for the state to get off to a fast start marketing the crop.