WENATCHEE, Wash. — The estimated size of Washington’s 2017 apple crop has grown 5.8 percent in the past three months, adding to normal slippage from early high prices.
The Nov. 1 estimate, released Nov. 8 by the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, is 138.5 million, 40-pound, fresh-packed boxes. Harvest of Fuji, Granny Smith and Cripps Pink is just wrapping up. The forecast was 130.9 million boxes on Aug. 1 just before Gala picking started.
The forecast was conservative — good weather increased fruit size and thus crop volume. But overall, fruit remains on the small side which is good for exports and domestic bag sales.
“Normally Gala peaks at size 100 (100 apples per 40-pound box), but this year it will be 113. Red Delicious were 72 to 80 last year and this year will be more at 88 to 100,” said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing, a major marketer.
He said he was surprised the estimate is 138.5 million boxes, that he expected 148 million due to a lot of growers picking more fruit than they thought they would in the last couple of months.
A partial report, Oct. 1, estimated Gala and Honeycrisp up from August but other varieties didn’t increase and the Gala estimate shrank 1.2 million, Nov. 1 from Oct. 1, Riggan said.
“Gala packouts aren’t as good as people thought they’d be. There’s some splitting and bitter pit,” he said.
Desmond O’Rourke, retired Washington State University agricultural economist and world apple market analyst, said the crop maybe 140 million boxes by Dec. 1, but Riggan said he doesn’t think so. “It could come in a little less depending on whether all the fruit comes off or not,” he said.
At 138.5 million boxes, the crop is second only to the 143.6-million-box crop of 2014. But the 2017 number will fluctuate monthly due to ratio of packout versus cullage during the year-long sales season.
As of Nov. 1, 17.3 million boxes had been shipped compared with 22.375 million a year ago. But the crop is later. The 2016 crop is finishing out close to 134 million boxes.
Washington has approximately 121 million boxes of apples in storage out of national holdings of 143.3 million, 6 percent more than a year ago, according to the U.S. Apple Association. Total national holdings, fresh and processed, is 194.4 million 42-pound, not 40-pound, boxes.
The Nov. 1 report shows Gala on the verge of overtaking Red Delicious as Washington’s No. 1 volume variety. Red Delicious is estimated at 33.5 million boxes and Gala at 33.4 million.
A large crop typically drives down prices but prices are expected to hold better because of weather-driven light crops in Europe, Michigan, Canada and Mexico.
However, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service now reports Canadian and Mexican imports could slow due to slowing economies, O’Rourke said.
“Overall, the picture is not quite as buoyant as we thought in August but it’s hard to compare (to last year) because the crop is later,” O’Rourke said.
Prices normally start high with new crop in August and September and then drop and hopefully stabilize for heavy holiday shipments in late November through winter. But prices have been at and below production costs for good portions of the last couple years for Red Delicious and Gala due to large volumes. Generally, $17 to $18 per box is break even on major varieties.
As of Nov. 8, the average asking price among Yakima and Wenatchee shippers for extra fancy (standard grade) medium size 80 and 88 apples per packed box were slipping from a month earlier for Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and for premium Honeycrisp, according to USDA tracking.
“Prices will continue to fall until we get the movement we need. Once we get that momentum when exports kick in, prices will stabilize and increase after the first of the year,” Riggan said. “It will be possibly better than last year but time will tell.”
Exports will pick up in January and February to the Middle East and elsewhere because of Europe’s lighter crop, he said. “We’re already getting calls from customers in the UK whom we haven’t heard from in a while, lining up for January,” Riggan said. Gala was $20 to $26 for size 80 and $16 to $22 for 88s compared to $24 to $28 and $22 to $26, respectively a month ago.
Red Delicious have been held down by leftover of the 2016 still being sold. Reds are $14 to $17 per box for 80s and 88s versus $14 to $16 a month ago. They were $24 to $26 at the start of October in 2016.