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Apple harvest could finish early

An early start may mean an early finish of the normally three-month Washington apple harvest. There's a lot of small fruit and some quality issues because of prolonged, excessive heat in June.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on September 10, 2015 9:20AM

Dan Wheat/Capital PressFernando Florez, 73, clips stems off Honeycrisp apples as he picks them in a Custom Apple Packers Inc. orchard in Brewster, Wash., on Aug. 31. Stems are clipped to keep them from puncturing soft apple skin.

Dan Wheat/Capital PressFernando Florez, 73, clips stems off Honeycrisp apples as he picks them in a Custom Apple Packers Inc. orchard in Brewster, Wash., on Aug. 31. Stems are clipped to keep them from puncturing soft apple skin.

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WENATCHEE, Wash. — Washington apple growers are into their second full month of their 2015 harvest with an eye on an early ending.

Typically, various varieties are picked from mid-August to mid-November, but this crop is 10 to 11 days ahead of last year which was about a week ahead of normal, Scott McDougall, co-president of McDougall & Sons Inc., an apple grower and packer in Wenatchee, said.

“So we’re running 18 days ahead of what we would consider normal,” he said. “Our company should be done about the 25th of October. That’s record early.”

The benefit of an early ending is less exposure to crop-killing freezes, he said.

But the early crop also suffered from prolonged excessive heat in June disrupting normal apple growth.

Gala, the first main variety to be picked, was too small and oddly matured because of that heat, said the quality control manager of a Wenatchee warehouse who didn’t want to be identified.

“Some fruit was over mature and other not internally mature from heat at the wrong time of year (June) when it should have been growing,” he said.

Starch turned to sugar as it is suppose to but internal pressures didn’t hold up, he said. That reduces crispness.

Nevertheless, there are not any catastrophic quality issues industry-wide, said Mike Robinson, general manager of Double Diamond Fruit Co., Quincy.

“The difficult dance is balancing maturity with color and size. It’s pretty much true across the board on all varieties,” said Keith Mathews, CEO and general manager of First Fruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima.

Because of heat and early harvest, a lot of growers strip-picked Gala instead of picking two to three times for color, Mathews said. The result is a lot of small, light-color, low-grade apples that are harder to market, he said.

“We will oversupply it and the price on those sizes and grades will be difficult to recover input costs from, not just Gala but small fruit in all varieties,” he said.

Growers with preferred sizes in the 80s should see very good prices, he said.

A couple recent holders of 2014 Red Delicious dumped a lot of it to the processing market and 2014 carryover is low enough to help reset overall wholesale prices upward after the poor 2014 season, Mathews said.

“Premium 88s (size) have moved up significantly in price but prices are depressed on fancy 2.25-inch bags of just about anything. There’s too many and not enough customers,” he said.

Average asking prices of new crop Gala 80s extra fancy was $26 to $30.90 per 40-pound box on Sept. 8, according to USDA. It was $18 to $20.90 for smaller-sized 125s.

Old crop Red Delicious, 80s in size, was $10 to $13. It was $9 per box last winter, well below break-even and a high of $22 in 2012.

USDA reports show new 2015 crop Washington apple shipments began the week ending Aug. 1 with 41,578 boxes shipped. A total of 1.47 million boxes were shipped the week ending Sept. 5 and 4.4 million of new crop, season-to-date. About 1.5 million boxes of 2014 apples remained as of Sept. 5.

McDougall said storability probably will be more challenging this year because of heat. He said color is improving now that nighttime temperatures are reaching the upper 40s and lower 50s.

His Gala picked short of estimate and, he said, he thinks the total industry crop will fall short of its Aug. 1, 125.2-million-box forecast.

Harvest labor has not been a problem for McDougall & Sons since it now has about 600 H-2A visa foreign guestworkers, he said.

“Labor is tight. I wouldn’t want to be doing this without H-2A,” Robinson said. “But I think most growers are doing a good job of getting fruit off when needed.”



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