By DAN WHEAT
SELAH, Wash. -- The volume of processing apples -- those going for juice, sauce and baked ingredients -- could top 800,000 tons from this year's Washington apple crop.
That's up more than 78 percent from the 2011 crop and well above levels seen for many years.
"It truly is an unprecedented year for our industry. The market is strong. We haven't seen these kinds of volumes for a long time," said Lindsay Buckner, senior vice president of fruit procurement and grower services at Tree Top Inc. in Selah.
Tree Top, a grower-owned cooperative, says it handles about 55 percent of the state's processing apples. A dozen other processors in the region and some on the East Coast get the rest.
Washington's processed apple crop was 446,000 tons last year and has averaged 487,000 over the past five years, Buckner said.
When this year's fresh crop was estimated at 108.7 million, 40-pound boxes, Buckner estimated processing volume from orchard harvest and on through the year-long sales season from packing houses at 720,000 tons.
When the fresh crop estimate rose to 121.5 million boxes on Nov. 1, Bucker revised his processing estimate to 797,200 tons. It may soon top 800,000 tons as some expect the next fresh crop estimate to hit 125 million boxes. Estimates of fresh and processing volumes are revised through the season.
Buckner said he's using an 18 percent cullage rate in his calculations which is more normal than last year's lower cullage and high packout. He estimates 264,200 of the 797,200 tons as hail damaged fruit.
The industry has struggled some for adequate numbers of bins and storage because of the size of the crop, Buckner said.
Processor-grade picking went into late November, typically going late on large crops, said Jon Alegria, president of CPC International Apple Co., Tieton, Wash.
There also has been more processor-grade apples sitting outside warehouses than normal to make room inside for fresh-grade, Buckner said.
Tree Top's plants had more fruit outside than normal a couple of months ago with early orchard run, Buckner said.
While Washington has an abundance, other parts of the country have less than normal processing volumes because of light crops. National processor apple holdings were down 6 percent from the year before on Nov. 1 and 10 percent below the five-year average for that date, according to the U.S. Apple Association.
That has led to very strong processor prices that started the season at $250 to $300 a ton for juice apples, Alegria said.
As of Nov. 20, juice apple processing prices averaged $120 to $140 per ton in Washington, according to the USDA.
The slump has been caused by harvest volume but as that shrinks to packing house-only cullage, prices should bounce back up, Alegria said.
Peeler processing prices -- for baked ingredients -- are $200 to $240 a ton. Normally, there's only a $20 gap in juice and peeler prices but it's $100 now because of a shortage of peeler-grade fruit, he said.