By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Washington apples will be large this fall, perhaps the largest they've been since Mt. St. Helens ash boosted their size some 32 years ago, a leading marketer says.
Fruit has been smaller the past couple of years, but normally about 50 percent of the crop is 80s to 100s -- that's 80 to 100 apples per 40-pound box, said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing at Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima. Size 88 is considered optimal.
This year, it looks like apples will peak at 88, 80 and larger, he said. Smaller numbers indicate larger fruit.
"Retailers who like big sizes are excited about this year," he said. "We will see more promotional opportunity on larger sizes like 72 and 64."
Larger fruit will allow retailers to offer consumer more size choices, Nager said. For example, instead of just an 88 Gala they'll be able to sell 64s, 88s and 100s, he said.
Larger sizes gives retailers more points of differentiation and there will be plenty of volume on different sizes, he said.
New York and Michigan apples likely will run 100s and smaller this year which will be good for Washington, he said. New York and Michigan will be working to regain shelf space lost to Washington when their 2012 crops were light, but Washington will be trying to maintain those gains and New York and Michigan likely will become aggressive on pricing, he said.
Washington quality filling in for New York and Michigan last fall led to a 14 percent increase in dollar sales for retailers last September through December and a 16 percent increase from September through April, Nielsen data shows, Nager said.
"That says Washington drove the apple category and we need to remind those retailers that Washington apples are profitable," he said.
A year or two after Mt. St. Helens ash descended on Central Washington apples grew larger from increased nutrients. Size 80 and 72 were abundant, Nager said.
Increased size this year is caused by great spring and summer weather coupled with a light crop load, he said.
"Heavy pruning in winter gave trees opportunity to get nutrients and for the fruit to really size up," he said.
Domex Superfresh Growers is one of the four largest tree fruit companies in Washington, selling about 15 million boxes of apples annually. It sells to more than 72 countries.
Larger sizes mean greater diversity to offer foreign markets, helping exports, Nager said.
Washington companies definitely are concerned about increasing exports if the Washington crop is more than 110 million boxes, he said. They are looking for new markets but it's usually easier to increase volumes into existing markets, he said.
More fruit should be ready for harvest earlier this year providing better volume for Labor Day promotions, Nager said.
Harvest will begin with Gala in Pasco and Mattawa the week of Aug. 4, expand into the Lower Yakima Valley the following week and reach advertising volume at the end of the second week, about Aug. 17, he said. Harvest normally wraps up in early November.