WENATCHEE, Wash. — Cold weather took a bite out of Washington’s 2019 apple harvest but the crop is still large enough to pose a marketing challenge.
The state’s total fresh crop, forecast at 137.3-million, 40-pound boxes on Aug. 1 was estimated at 138.2 million on Nov. 1.
That’s about 7 million to 10 million boxes fewer than most people expected because several days of freezing temperatures, dipping to 11 degrees in Richland, kept several million boxes worth of apples from being harvested, said Brian Focht, manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association in Wenatchee.
A cold front hit southern growing regions harder than the north which was unusual, he said.
Even with the shortfall, the crop is 17.8% larger than last year’s crop of 117.2 million boxes.
“It will still be a very challenging crop to market profitably because of the volume and what’s happening in the market place,” said Desmond O’Rourke, world apple analyst and retired Washington State University agricultural economist.
Nationally, there were 17% more apples in storage on Nov. 1 than a year ago, according to the U.S. Apple Association.
Mexico and China have larger apple crops. China bounced back to normal after a down year, which means it will be exporting more, O’Rourke said.
Washington apple exports are doing very well at 4.6 million boxes, up 48.6%, Sept. 1 through Oct. 31, versus the same period last year, O’Rourke said. Gains are notable in Canada, Mexico, Latin America, India and Taiwan, probably due to lower prices, he said.
Washington exported 30.7 million boxes of apples from the 2018 crop, compared with 45 million in 2017 and a record 50.6 million at 35.7% of the crop in 2014, a year of big volume and low prices that overall was an industry bust.
“That’s kind of where we’re heading this year,” O’Rourke said.
A lot of apples will be sold at “breakeven price somewhere around $20 to $22 per box,” he said.
Increased volumes of Honeycrisp, proprietary varieties and organics will decrease their ability to cushion losses of other varieties, O’Rourke said.
“I think that’s accurate. This crop will be a challenge,” Focht said. “We have better quality, but we can’t measure consumer take at retail. Higher quality usually has a positive effect. Quality and color is good and packouts are high. We have a real nice crop to market so I’m optimistic we will have some pull when we get rolling. Still there’s a lot of competition any more from berries and other fruit available longer and year-round which makes it tougher in the apple category.”
Harter said Honeycrisp prices have been steadily dropping because of high volume and that it will cannibalize proprietary varieties depending on the region and even core varieties. It’s causing decreased movement of almost all other varieties, he said.
As of Nov. 7, the average asking price among Yakima and Wenatchee district shippers for extra fancy (standard grade), medium size 80 and 88 apples per box for Honeycrisp was $30 to $40.90 compared with $42 to $50.90 a month ago and $45 to $55.90 a year ago, according to USDA.
Retailers are discounting them a lot to spur apple sales, O’Rourke said. Honeycrisp has not been sold below $40 per box for years, he has noted.
“The big test for the club (proprietary variety) guys is can they maintain price premiums given the large volume of clubs and larger total crop,” O’Rourke said.
“I think it will be a fierce battle between clubs at the retail to get reasonable shelf space and reasonable returns. I foresee quite a dog fight,” he said.
Other Nov. 7 prices: Gala size 80, $20 to $26, the same as a month ago and compared with $18 to $24 a year ago and $24 to $28 two years ago.
Red Delicious 80s and 88s new crop were $15 to $18 compared to $15 to $18 a month ago for old crop 80s and $14 to $16 a month ago for 88s.
“Some big operators can break even at $16 per box on Reds on economies of scale, but smaller guys can’t. It’s really $22 to stay afloat meaning you can put money aside to replant,” O’Rourke said.
The average price of all varieties for the week ending Nov. 3 was $23 per box versus $25 a year ago, he said.