Firms focus on maintaining brisk sales at strong prices
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Washington's record apple crop shrank half-a-million boxes during December but marketers say that's not much in a crop of more than 129 million boxes.
The Jan. 1 count of sales so far and what remains in storage, minus estimated cullage, is 129.2 million, 40-pound, fresh-packed boxes, down 531,000 boxes from the Dec. 1 number of 129.7 million.
The largest portion of the drop, 292,000 boxes, was in Granny Smith, followed by 152,000 fewer boxes in Red Delicious, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
Cameo was up 9,000 and Golden Delicious was up 6,000, while some other varieties were down and others were up, he said.
The 531,000 was within normal fluctuations and came from several companies holding to a little tighter quality, Kelly said.
It's driven too, he said, by the market on different grades and varieties. A company or two apparently had more Granny Smith than what they thought the market could comfortably bear, he said.
The concern on sales desks right now is maintaining brisk sales at record strong prices and hoping that nothing derails what should be the best season yet of several good seasons, Kelly said.
It should be doable because of light crops in the Midwest, East, Canada, Mexico and Europe -- all because of weather issues. Even the Southern Hemisphere crop, entering the market in March and April, is thought to be light, Kelly said.
"We've been very delighted with movement year-to-date. Sales have been brisk," said Bob Mast, vice president of marketing at Columbia Marketing International in Wenatchee.
As of Dec. 30, Washington had shipped 42.8 million boxes of apples compared with 36.5 million a year earlier and 36.9 million two years earlier. The increase shows strong movement that is needed for the size of crop, Kelly said.
Enough fruit to pack 86.9 million boxes remains in storage, compared with 72.3 million boxes worth a year ago and 72.5 million boxes two years ago.
The industry has 14.6 million more boxes than last year left to sell but the spread was 21 million boxes at the start of the season, Kelly said.
"We cut the lead by one-third and we can cut the remaining two-thirds over the rest of the season. We look to be on target but we need to stay at high levels of movement," he said. "There's still nine months to go and a lot can happen, including world economics."
Mast said the next four to six weeks will be telling in adjusting pricing or promotions to keep fruit moving.
There are more Fuji than usual so it will last longer into the season and negate the need for Southern Hemisphere imports, Mast said.
Loss of vegetables to a freeze in Yuma, Ariz., puts more market focus back on fruit, he said.
The average wholesale price of all varieties was $27.08 per box on Dec. 22 compared with $23.46 a year earlier and $20.28 two years earlier, Kelly said.
The low end is Red Delicious at $22.41 compared with $19.21 and $16.35. Gala is $26.46 per box compared with $22.80 a year ago and $19.33 two years ago. Fuji is $24.69 compared with $23.38 and $20.54. The high end is Honeycrisp at $53.78.
"These are still looking like the highest prices we've ever had but expenses are pretty high, too -- fuel and labor," he said.