WENATCHEE, Wash. — The coronavirus scare has boosted retail sales of Washington apples 40%, but it also may keep growers from getting all the H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers they need.
“Retailers are up 40% on apples. With everyone staying home and online grocery orders off the charts, our shippers are double shifting and running weekends. Bag demand is crazy,” said Brian Focht, manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association in Wenatchee.
“If this continues, it could save the season for growers,” said Desmond O’Rourke, world apple analyst and retired Washington State University agricultural economist.
The September-to-September sales season had been bleak because the large crop depressed prices.
“The last two weeks has been an amazing turnaround,” O’Rourke said. “March is normally the turning point for the season. If it doesn’t go well and prices are down it affects the rest of the season.”
But the downside of the virus is that while Mexican workers who worked in the U.S. on H-2A (foreign agricultural) visas in the last 12 months are being allowed to return to the U.S., first-time H-2A workers are not.
That’s a concern for Washington tree fruit growers, who filled 26,226 jobs with H-2A workers last year. Of that the farm labor association Wafla provided 12,000 workers for 16,000 jobs.
“Most of our employers are crossing returning workers, but about 15% of our employers say it will be an issue,” said Dan Fazio, Wafla director.
About 100 Wafla-provided H-2A workers who finish contracts by June 1 will be available to transfer to other growers, but they won’t be enough to meet the need, Fazio said.
Growers are concerned about that and having enough worker housing if coronavirus quarantines are needed, he said.
Wafla and other farm labor groups are working to convince the U.S. State Department to allow entry of first-time H-2A workers.
Prior to consumers stocking up on groceries due to the coronavirus, Washington companies were shipping 2.5 million to 2.8 million, 40-pound boxes of apples to retailers weekly, Focht said.
The week ending March 22, they shipped 3.8 million boxes, up from 2.3 million for the same week a year ago, he said.
But last year’s crop was smaller, so compared to a similar-sized crop two years ago, shipments are still up 1 million boxes for that week, O’Rourke said.
Prices, still flat for most varieties, are edging up for Honeycrisp at $32 to $40.90 per box for standard grade, medium size 80 apples per box, according to USDA. It was $26 to $36.90 on Feb. 6.
“We’re not actively going out in the crisis and moving the price up, but our shippers won’t have to take low-end prices. It should solidify, increase our pricing slightly, in June, July and August,” Focht said.
Demand is high for apples in transparent, film bags, because they are viewed as more sanitary than apples in bulk, Focht said, adding it will be interesting to see if demand for film bags continues after the crisis.
“We’re not set up to bag 50% of the crop but that’s where demand is right now. It’s challenging for shippers and increasing their costs,” he said.
Demand for apples, citrus, potatoes and onions are all high because they store well, he said.
Pears are more of an impulse purchase and haven’t seen a big sales increase, he said.
Apple exports have been running 29.3% greater than last year because of the large crop and low prices, but that will be slowed by the greater domestic demand and the value of foreign currencies falling against the dollar, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, the industry’s export promotional arm.
The coronavirus has made it harder to ship apples to China and promote Washington apples there, he said.
The commission is looking at increasing a reserve fund from $3 million to $4 million, which would be about half its annual budget. It also intends to shift more promotional money toward Canada, Vietnam and Indonesia, which are able to pay for higher-priced fruit, Fryhover said. The commission also plans to update a study of its economic impact, last done in 2012.