(Aug. 28) Growers are reduced to price takers in nearly all commodity markets and most fresh produce markets.

In that scenario, natural disaster or weather events can have a dramatic effect on the profitability of U.S. growers.

The 2006 U.S. Apple Association Outlook and Marketing Conference, Aug. 16-18 in Chicago, reflected this truth for apple growers.

Earlier in the year, some Washington state growers were expecting a crop as large as 115 million cartons.

That would have been a bin-busting record for the state and possibly a big damper on apple prices.

As it turned out, hailstorms damaged the crop’s potential in almost all growing areas, and now the fresh market crop in Washington state is forecast at about 93 million cartons.

For the whole U.S., the association’s estimate calls for a crop of 221 million 42-pound cartons, down 6% from last year and 1% lower than the five year average.

While growers have been known to underestimate crop potential, there is little doubt the crop this year is below last year.

Based on supply and demand as they appear now, growers should experience a fairly good price year.

While there are many factors such as hail and the neighbor’s acreage that are beyond growers’ control, another topic at the U.S. Apple conference illustrated that growers are thinking creatively to become price makers.

Use of so-called club varieties — whereby growers agree to limit volume and abide by quality standards — was a trend spotlighted at an Aug. 18 workshop.

Having control over a variety could prevent oversupply and create stronger f.o.b. prices.

Speakers said creating awareness of the new varieties will be a challenge because retailers can’t continuously expand stock keeping units in the apple category. Even so, there is clearly potential in the managed approach to variety marketing, as retailers and consumers will covet the best selections.

Helping growers see both the big picture as price takers and their evolving role as price makers helped make this year’s apple conference successful.