WENATCHEE, Wash. — A 34.5 percent increase in the number of apple trees in the ground over the last six years and the first increase in total apple acreage in 16 years shows the “fierce competitiveness” and the “optimism” of the Washington apple industry, a top analyst says.
A Washington Tree Fruit Acreage Report issued Nov. 8 by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service shows 179,146 acres of apple trees in 2017. That’s the first uptick since the peak of 192,000 acres in 2001. Acreage declined to 172,986 in 2006, reflecting years of poor returns, and decreased further to 167,489 in 2011.
“That bucks the world trend. It’s very significant because in the rest of the major apple-producing regions of the world acreage is falling steadily and production is increasing due to higher-density plantings and increased yields,” says Desmond O’Rourke, retired Washington State University agricultural economist and apple analyst.
Washington had been doing the same thing for more than a decade but in recent years is also adding acreage, “which tells you the industry is very optimistic,” he said.
The number and density of trees per acre are seen as truer gauges of production capacity growth than acreage.
There are 126.5 million apple trees in the ground in the state, up 34.5 percent from 94 million in 2011, which was up 25.3 percent from 75 million in 2006. The density of all apple plantings is now 706 trees per acre versus 562 in 2011, 434 in 2006 and 391 in 2001.
All of the trees and acreage pushes the envelope of oversupply in the face of labor shortages, federal regulations and other challenges and shows the “fierce competitiveness” of the industry, O’Rourke said.
“The competition has always been fierce. However, the stakes are so much higher now because a few retail buyers can control so much volume. Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Safeway-Albertsons and now Amazon-Whole Foods together handle about half of all produce sales,” he said. “It’s a huge battle getting in with them.”
To do that, Washington’s big tree fruit companies each want to offer as much volume of commodity varieties such as Gala and Fuji as possible while also providing several small-volume, higher-margin club varieties such as Envy, Pinata and Kanzi, O’Rourke said.
In 2014, Dan Plath, orchard manager of Washington Fruit & Produce Co., Yakima, said the company had been adding 500 acres of apple orchard annually for eight or nine years with no plans to stop. McDougall & Sons Inc. in Wenatchee and Auvil Fruit Co. in Orondo are among other companies aggressively adding acreage.
But the NASS survey indicates the acreage race may be slowing. It shows 6,177 apple acres planted in 2016 versus 15,286 for 2014 and 2015, which is 7,643 per year.
The NASS survey was sent to over 2,900 operations of five or more acres of tree fruit and received about 1,300 responses. The Washington Apple Commission, The Pear Bureau Northwest, the Washington State Fruit Commission, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association and USDA each paid $5,000 for the survey, said B.J. Thurlby, fruit commission president. Previous surveys were in 2011, 2006, 2001, 1993, 1986 and 1948-49.
Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said the trend toward larger, more efficiently produced crops to maximize returns is clear. High-density maximizes efficient of labor and prepares orchards for mechanical apple harvesting, he said.
“Most of the new trees going in are newer varieties and there’s a lot of acreage in transition to organic,” DeVaney said. “So while production is going up, it is increasing in areas where the market tells growers, through strong pricing, that there’s good demand.”
Organic production is 15,801 acres of apples with 4,200 in transition and 2,040 acres of cherries with 332 in transition.
By conventional apple variety, Gala leads at 41,036 acres and 31.5 million trees. Red Delicious is 39,207 acres and 14.3 million trees. Fuji/Red Fuji is 28,718 acres and 22.3 million trees and Honeycrisp is 22,616 acres and 20.8 million trees, more than doubling in acreage since 2011. Granny Smith is 16,267 acres and 10.7 million trees.
The survey shows the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley leading the Wenatchee District in apple acreage. Yakima and Wenatchee lead in sweet cherry acreage and Wenatchee far exceeding the other two in winter and Bartlett pear acres.
By county, Yakima and Grant lead in apple acres and trees planted. Yakima and Chelan counties lead in cherries. Chelan and Okanogan lead in pears.
A big shortcoming of the NASS report is that it excludes acreage and tree data on more than 20 smaller-volume and club varieties, O’Rourke said.
That information was not published to avoid disclosure of individual operations, NASS said.
Companies didn’t want their competitors to know how many acres of a given club variety they have, O’Rourke said.
“It’s a very incomplete picture. I guess the acreage is greater. There’s no way to estimate how much greater,” he said.
The report does list acreage of seven club varieties: Ambrosia, Autumn Glory, Envy, Jazz, Kanzi, Opal and Pacific Rose. But some appear to be under reported by growers, which they are free to do, O’Rourke said.
For example, Jazz and Ambrosia are about equal in production but Ambrosia nearly doubles Jazz in acres and more than doubles it in trees, he said.
Similarly, data was not published on eight sweet cherry varieties, four pear varieties, five apricot varieties, seven nectarine varieties, nine peach varieties seven prune and plum varieties.
Pluots were estimated at 33 acres and 9,792 trees with region and variety levels not published due to disclosure rules.
All tree fruit totals 249,723 acres, up 6.6 percent from 234,311 in 2011, which was down 2.9 percent from 2006. The total number of trees is 144.5 million, up 31.6 percent from 109.8 million in 2011 which was up 22.2 percent from 2006.
Sweet cherries have been continually increasing since 1986. They are at 42,198 acres, up 10.7 percent from 38,115 in 2011.
“Cherries remain a super high-risk crop. I think the acreage increase is slowing now. There’s more switch out of existing acres into newer and high-density varieties and some loss of acres to new apple varieties,” Thurlby said.
With a record 15 million, 20-pound boxes of Northwest cherries harvested in just July, growers “want more than 4-ton-per-acre Bing in that window,” he said.
The acreage of winter pears such as d’Anjou and Bosc increased by 73 acres over the last six years, while Bartlett pear acreage decreased. Overall, pear acreage dropped 4.7 percent, from 22,008 to 20,965.
The Yakima Valley has a lot of old pear trees susceptible to pear psylla, Thurlby said. Growers are replacing them with apples or other crops.
On the flip side, a shortage of processing pears has led to stable, high prices for Bartletts for processing, and Bartletts are gaining in the fresh market, he said.
Peaches, nectarines and prunes-plums have declined in acreage since 2001. They now stand at 2,179, 1,191 and 247 acres, respectively.
The “buy local” movement has led to a proliferation of small, local peach production throughout the Midwest, pressuring traditional peach states such as Georgia, South Carolina, California and Washington, Thurlby said.
Demand for Italian prunes dropped, causing a loss of acres, but now demand exceeds supply, he said.
Apricots hit a low of 1,100 acres in 2006 and have now increased to 1,288 acres. They are making a comeback with two newer varieties, Robada and Rival, which are beautiful in color, taste good and produce well, Thurlby said. Their timing is good after California apricots, so there is demand for them, he said.
The NASS report is useful for growers and packer-shipper-marketers, government officials and suppliers of packaging, chemicals and pesticides to analyze trends.