Number up 18.6 percent from August forecast
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- The Washington state apple crop is now estimated at a record-shattering 129.7 million, fresh-packed, 40-pound boxes.
That's an increase of 20.4 million boxes and 18.6 percent from the industry's prior record of 109.3 million boxes in 2010.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw that number," said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee.
Like many in the industry, he figured the 121.5-million-box Nov. 1 storage report number would increase by maybe 4 million boxes but not by 8.2 million.
The Dec. 1 storage report, released Dec. 6, by the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association is a count of the 2012 apple crop shipped so far, what remains in storage and estimates the rate of fresh packout versus cullage for juicing and other processing for the next 11 months.
The new number is up 21 million boxes or 18.6 percent from the Aug. 1 crop forecast of 108.7 million boxes.
"I never would have projected that," said a surprised Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association. It's very likely the number will top 130 million boxes in coming months, he said.
Adding a normal 18 percent processor volume, the total crop is about 150 million boxes, he said. The true number is probably more than that because more fruit went directly from orchards to processors this year and missed the associations' counts, Fryhover said.
"This should give us all a shot in the arm of what could be our future," Fryhover said. "There will be more fruit because of rejuvenation of old orchards with higher density plantings and vertically integrated companies aggressively planting more in recent years."
While the crop generally is larger this year because of those factors, the jump in the last month was caused by growers picking everything they could into mid-November with strong fresh and processing prices because of short apple crops in the Midwest, East Coast, Canada, Mexico and Europe, Fryhover said.
Good weather allowed more picking days, enabling more fruit to be harvested even with a shortage of pickers, Kelly said. Fruit passed over early was picked later, allowing it to grow larger, which also contributed to a larger crop, he said.
Most of the increase since November has been in Red Delicious and Granny Smith, Kelly said.
The last quantum leap was 25 million boxes between the 2003 and 2004 crops. Between 2004 and 2011, crops stayed in the 100 million to 109-million-box range.
Kelly and Fryhover are optimistic shipper-marketers will be able to sustain sales and good prices because of the light crops elsewhere.
Weekly sales have been running 2.8 million to 3 million boxes when 2.2 million to 2.5 million is more typical this time of year, Kelly said.
"I calculate we need to move about 400,000 more boxes per week on average over the year to sell it all," he said. "We need to keep the same pace or maybe step it up a little through spring."
Sales always slow in summer because of the availability of other fresher fruit.
A total of 12.4 million boxes were sold in November, a record for that month beating 11.2 million in 2010, Kelly said.
As of Dec. 1, there were 98.1 million boxes in storage compared with 83.5 million at the same time a year ago and 84 million in 2010, he said.
The average season-to-date price of all varieties, as of Dec. 1, was $27.55 versus $23.81 a year ago and $20.61 two years ago, Kelly said. Red Delicious, the most voluminous variety, wholesales for $22.73 compared with $19.22 a year ago and $16.29 two years ago.
Traditionally prices drop as early, higher-priced Honeycrisp and Gala thin in volume, but the drop this year should not be significant, Kelly said.