Washington growers also see record high labor, fuel costs
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Sales of Washington's largest apple crop continues at a record pace and high prices.
The crop is now pegged at 129.5 million boxes, up 300,000 boxes from a month ago due to normal ups and downs of packouts versus cullage, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
"On a short crop marketers push everything they can, but with the longest crop ever they can be more picky," he said. "So if some comes out of storage and doesn't look that good it might get diverted to juicing or baking."
The crop is about 17 percent larger than the previous record crop of 109.3 million boxes in 2010 and the slightly smaller crop of 2011.
The increase has been attributed to rejuvenation of old orchards with higher density plantings and companies aggressively planting more trees in recent years. Growers also picked all they could because of short crops in the Midwest, East Coast, Canada, Mexico and Europe.
A new industry record for the most apples sold in one month was set in October at 19.1 million boxes, Kelly said. That surpassed the previous record of 11.5 million in December 2010. November was 12.4 million, December and January were each 11.7 million, all of which were records for those months, he said.
"Of the top 19 shipping weeks in the last 70-plus years that records have been kept, 11 happened this season," he said. The minimum of those has been 2.8 million boxes in one week with the average at about 3 million a week, he said. Previously, 3 million boxes in one week had been reached only three times, twice in 2004 and once in 2011, he said.
The pace is right where it needs to be, he said.
As of Feb. 1, 56.5 million boxes had been shipped with 72.9 million left to go compared with 47.5 million shipped and 61.2 million left to go a year ago and 48.4 million versus 61 million two years ago, he said.
Packing sheds are packing greater volumes with most running overtime, some at double shifts and some at six days a week, said Mike Eurton, operations production manager at Columbia Fruit Packers Inc., Wenatchee.
Columbia is at its typical two, nine-hour shifts a day, running from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. but instead of four such shifts for a 36-hour week has boosted to five for a 45-hour week, Eurton said. That involves overtime pay, he said.
Prices have been at record highs all season and, as of Feb. 2, stood at $26.41 per box as the average of all varieties season-to-date compared with $22.97 a year ago and $20.02 two years ago, Kelly said.
Prices generally start the season high in September, settle down and then either go up or down at the end of the season, depending on inventory.
Growers are experiencing historic high returns but also have historic high labor and fuel costs, Kelly said. They are doing a variety of things with extra money, he said. That includes replanting older blocks of trees with newer varieties or strains, paying off debt, buying new equipment and adding to savings.
"Getting rid of older blocks and replanting newer varieties that are less labor intensive is pretty critical right now," he said.