Price difference is biggest one-year swing some have ever seen
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- New York's apple orchards are being carpeted with red as unpicked apples drop to the ground.
With the best of the crop off to market, growers say this year it's cheaper to leave leftovers on the trees than to pick and sell them for juice.
While that's happened before, it's a far cry from last year when growers stripped branches bare and collected top dollar.
"There wasn't an apple left in western New York last year," said Bruce Kirby, who runs a small orchard in Orleans County.
Even the lowly "drops" -- apples that fall on their own -- were in demand. This year, growers can't give those away.
One reason is an abundant crop, not only in New York but in neighboring Pennsylvania and nearby Michigan, which has produced more second-tier fruit than juice and applesauce makers need and driven down market prices.
When labor and transportation costs are factored in, selling anything but the cream of the crop for the supermarket can become a losing proposition.
"In some cases it's not worth the bother of picking them off the tree," said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the New York Apple Association.
The difference in prices is the biggest one-year swing some have ever seen. Last year, growers hurt by severe hailstorms were getting an above-average 12-18 cents per pound for processing apples, those sold for sauce and slices. The price is about 5-8 cents this year.
Juice apples, including drops, brought 7 or 8 cents a pound last year, compared with 3 or 4 cents this year, and there are so many of them that juicers aren't even buying drops, Kirby said.
"The market and the prices were very strong last year, stronger than average," said Diane Kurrle, a U.S. Apple Association spokeswoman, "and they're below average this year."
Kirby estimates he left 1,000 bushels in his 40-acre orchard.
"I would venture to say every single grower who has an orchard in this state left something," he said.
It happens all the time in Washington, the only state that produces more apples than New York, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission. There, a higher percentage of apples are grown strictly for eating with less attention to processing.
A small percentage of growers in Michigan, the No. 3 apple state, are leaving apples in the fields, with those who grow more for the processing market feeling the biggest strain, said Apple Committee Executive Director Denise Donohue.
The bright side for New York growers, Gregg said, is that the public still has a voracious appetite for the top-dollar fresh apples which make up the majority of the crop.