By DAN WHEAT
EPHRATA, Wash. -- As field work goes, it's relatively easy. It involves grabbing handfuls of 5-foot-long, quarter-inch-thick steel rods from the back of a cart and pushing them into the dirt next to each budded rootstock, planted to become an apple tree.
A crew of 22 men made quick work of it at Willow Drive Nursery south of Ephrata, doing six rows at a time. Buds had pushed out into small, new growth. When young trees are more developed, the crew will be back to tape them to the stakes for support, to keep them from breaking off in wind.
With strong apple prices for several years capped with the current stellar year of huge volume and high prices, growers have been buying more new trees than normal, Central Washington tree fruit nursery owners say. But after two years of strong sales, the nursery owners are wondering how long the good times will last.
In addition to taking advantage of the current high prices, growers have been replacing young trees killed and damaged in the pre-Thanksgiving Day freeze of 2010 and replacing a lot of older trees with newer strains and varieties, said Ken Adams, president of Willow Drive Nursery. Acreage expansion has been another factor.
"This past year has been a pretty good year. A lot of demand," Adams said.
He sold all of his stock in 2012 and 2013 and doesn't always do that.
But high prices for Washington's huge 2012 apple crop have been driven by light crops in the Midwest, East Coast, Canada, Europe and Mexico. Crops there are expected to return to normal this fall and prices could drop.
"I look at the large crops and wonder how we can maintain planting at these levels," Adams said.
Pete Van Well, president of Van Well Nursery in East Wenatchee, said demand for new trees exceeded supply in the spring of 2012 and demand is still strong.
There's no slowdown in orders yet, but there likely will be in 2014 or 2015, depending on apple prices, Van Well said.
Nurseries can't turn around production on a dime. It takes two years to grow a finished tree.
The field the Willow Drive crew was working in the morning of May 2 had been planted as rootstock in the spring of 2012. It was budded with various apple varieties in August of 2012. Stakes, now placed, will support the trees until they are dug this coming fall, stored for the winter and shipped out across the nation for orchard planting in the spring of 2014.
Willow Drive takes orders year-round with deposits.
"When we grade out, the first deposits get the first choice," Adams explained. "We know pretty much at budding time what people want for a year-and-a-half later."
New orders simply dry up instead of anyone reneging on orders and losing deposits, he said.
Van Well said he doesn't require deposits but knows his customers, those he can rely on and those he can't.
The nurseries are just getting beyond the devastation of the pre-Thanksgiving Day 2010 freeze. It affected three years of production and wiped out roughly one-fourth -- 1.9 million trees -- of their 2012 crop. Cool, wet springs of 2010 and 2011 slowed tree growth.
But the springs of 2012 and 2013 have been warmer and the current crop for shipment in the spring of 2014 looks good, Adams said.