Freeze, fuel costs sting fruit

Pacific Northwest fruit

Cherries likely to suffer more freeze damage than apples

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Freeze damage and fuel damage are two big concerns of Pacific Northwest tree fruit growers as they approach the 2011 growing season.

With increasing acreage, apples and cherries should be breaking volume records, but that won't happen because of freeze damage, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association and manager of apple, pear and cherry marketing associations in Wenatchee.

Rising fuel costs cast a big question mark on the overall economy, on producers' costs and consumers' willingness to buy, Grim said.

"Will we take a step backward with the economy? That's the question," Grim said. "People still have to eat so people the last two years have continued to buy cherries, pears and apples."

Costs of transportation, fertilizers and pesticides will all go up with fuel costs, Grim said.

A pre-Thanksgiving Day freeze and a February cold snap damaged Washington cherries, apples and wine grapes.

"The crops have been reduced, but how much we don't know yet," Grim said in early March.

The extent of damage often isn't evident until bloom in late April and sometimes later.

Trunk bark on some late variety apples, like Granny Smith, Fuji and Cripps Pink, split after the November freeze because they were not dormant when the freeze hit, said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing. Split bark can damage or kill trees.

The freezes also took their toll on young trees, Grim said.

Damage to cherries is probably greater than damage to apples, Grim said. Fresh crops are likely to be similar to the 2010 total of 14 million boxes for cherries and 107 million for apples, he said.

There's damage in traditional cold spots and near the Tri-Cities, where temperatures were high and plunged dramatically with the pre-Thanksgiving freeze, said Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices in Wenatchee.

Apricots and peaches took a lot of damage in the lower Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities and Mattawa, he said.

Pears, less susceptible to freeze, don't appear to have been damaged, Grim said. Growers in Wenatchee and Hood River, Ore., are seeing good bud development, and the crop should be somewhat larger than last year's 17.5 million boxes because of the alternate bearing cycle, he said.

Wholesale apple prices have increased in recent years but grower costs continue to rise, so profit margins have remained fairly good but relatively flat, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

He cited fuel and labor cost increases and retailers' cost of meeting new federal food safety requirements.

Cherry profits were higher than apples and pears this past year but tanked from oversupply and compressed harvest in 2009.

Growers are optimistic but it's too early to forecast profitability for this season, Mayer said.

Returns are aided by a continued better varietal mix than a decade and more ago, Mayer said. Red Delicious, the No. 1 variety since the 1930s, accounted for 73 percent of the crop in 1987 and 30 percent in 2010, he said.

Growers will continue to plant more Honeycrisp and club varieties, seeking high returns with an eye toward what may replace the Cameo apple in good returns, Grim said.

Honeycrisp is probably cannibalizing Cameo, Jonagold and Braeburn, which sometimes produce fruit that's too large, Grim said.

Growers are also looking for newer varieties that taste similar to Honeycrisp but are easier to grow.

Mexico and Canada will remain the largest apple export markets, with China now surpassing Taiwan for third place, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

Exports to Mexico may increase if the 20 percent tariff is lifted.

China, India and Indonesia are the largest volume growth markets and continue to hold the most promise because of large and growing middle classes, Fryhover said.

If free trade agreements are approved with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, those countries will be bigger targets for apple exports, he said. Australia could become a market if it drops its ban on U.S. apples, he said.

Foreign markets become more important in heavy crop years, Fryhover said, because shippers look to push more apples into every market they can.

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