Lower production elsewhere is keeping prices competitive
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- The Washington apple industry has made a long-anticipated quantum leap in crop size.
With harvest almost complete, the 2012 crop is now estimated at 121.5 million, 40-pound, fresh-packed boxes. That's up 11.7 percent from the Aug. 1 forecast of 108.7 million boxes and 10 percent ahead of the record of 109.4 million boxes set in 2010.
The new Nov. 1 estimate is about what the conventional wisdom of the crop size was before hailstorm damage dampened the Aug. 1 estimate, said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
The industry probably is entering an era of 120 million-box crops, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association and manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association.
The final figure for 2011 sales just ended is the same as the Aug. 1 estimate for this year, 108.7 million.
Crops averaged 66 million boxes in the late 1980s. The norm was 82 million boxes in the 1990s. It was a big deal when the 100 million-box mark was broken in 2004 at 104.9 million. Since then it has topped 108 million three times.
The growth is due to higher-density plantings while acreage has declined.
The state's apple acres declined from its peak of 192,000 in 2001 to 167,489 in 2010, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service survey taken that year. The number of apple trees reached 94 million, up 25 percent from 2006.
Higher density plantings set the stage and good bloom and cell division and good growing weather resulting in larger fruit this year, Grim said.
It takes fewer large apples to fill a box so larger fruit is the main reason the crop expanded so dramatically from the Aug. 1 estimate, he said.
Normally, such a large supply would be a sales challenge and depress prices but Washington growers have been blessed with a perfect storm in their direction. Apple production is down this season in the Midwest, East Coast, Canada, Mexico and Europe. China has also increased its apple prices, so there is great demand domestically and overseas for Washington apples.
"We can certainly sell all this fruit, but long-term this crop size underscores our need for a solution to the labor issue and our need to keep growing export markets and domestic consumption," DeVaney said.
Season-to-date shipments totaled 20.4 million boxes as of Nov. 4, a record compared with 16.4 million a year ago and 16.7 million two years ago, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.
"That's an incredible increase," he said.
Shipments hit 3.033 million boxes for the week ending Oct. 28 and 2.9 million the following week, a level not usually reached until December, Kelly said. The weekly record is 3.050 million in December, 2004, he said.
Exports are up 40 percent from a year ago at 4.9 million boxes as of Oct. 31, Kelly said. Canada, Mexico and Asia are all ahead of last year at this time on purchase of Washington apples, he said.
Prices are staying strong, averaging $28.79 per box for all varieties as of Nov. 3 compared with $25.11 a year ago and $21.22 two years ago, Kelly said.
Prices are just right and may increase as the year-long sales season progresses, Grim said.
"Now is the time to build momentum and that's what I see us doing," he said.
Box supply should not become an issue because East Coast companies have an excess, Kelly said. But having enough trucks in December could be a problem, he said.