Record apple crop forecast

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Bins await the harvest of Golden Delicious apples in an East Wenatchee, Wash., orchard on Aug. 10. Harvest of a record apple crop began Aug. 1 near the Tri-Cities.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The Washington apple industry has been talking about it for months. Now it’s official. The forecast for the 2014 crop is a record-shattering 140.2 million, 40-pound boxes.

That’s up about 8 percent from the previous record of 128.8 million boxes in 2012 and 18 percent from the 2013 crop of 115 million boxes. Some think it will go higher.

“This is pretty much what a lot of folks expected so it’s not a surprise and the industry is prepared,” said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, which released the forecast with the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association on Aug. 8. The forecast is based on estimates from growers and fieldmen to packing, shipping and marketing companies.

“There’s been a lot of investment in new packing lines and storage facilities. There are marketing plans. We expect it to be a good year,” DeVaney said.

But others pointed to positives and negatives.

World apple markets will be disrupted by Russia’s apple ban, said Desmond O’Rourke, a retired Washington State University agricultural economist and consultant.

Russia on Aug. 7 announced a one-year ban on apples and other agricultural goods from the U.S., European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia in retaliation for sanctions imposed on it by the West over the crisis in Ukraine.

While that’s a loss of 600,000 or more boxes of Washington apples into Russia, the greater significance is the 30 million to 40 million boxes of apples Poland exports to Russia annually, O’Rourke said.

Europe’s apple crop is expected to be 9 percent larger this fall and Russia’s ban will cause a big backup in Europe, he said.

“Europe will be trying to move more apples into Asia, Africa and maybe even North America,” he said.

Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association and manager of apple, pear and cherry marketing associations, agreed it’s problematic and said the same situation, involving Russia and Poland, faces Northwest pears.

China has been closed to U.S. Red and Golden Delicious apples for two years and export markets are critical to selling a large crop, O’Rourke said.

Other worries are having enough pickers and good enough weather for uninterrupted harvest of a large crop, Grim said.

Harvest started Aug. 1 near the Tri-Cities, will ramp up soon and finish in early November.

In June, Grim predicted a 140 million to 150 million box crop this fall. He said the 2012 crop would have been 144 million boxes had it not been for the loss of 15 million boxes worth of apples to hail.

The huge jump in crop size in 2012 and again this year is due to more new, high-density plantings coming into production, Grim said. The smaller crop in 2013 was due to a light fruit set and an alternate bearing cycle, he said.

The size of the crop will pressure prices downward, O’Rourke said.

Washington was able to maintain strong prices with a huge crop in 2012 but that was because New York, Michigan, Europe, Canada and Mexico all had lighter crops, he said.

New York and Michigan will be a bit light and late this season, Grim said. That will be a big advantage for Washington, allowing it to establish early momentum with retailers since its crop is about a week early, Grim said.

“We will have the market to ourselves for a while and that can be very important in setting long-term programs with retailers who then will be less likely to switch and go elsewhere,” he said.

It helps, O’Rourke noted, that Gala and Honeycrisp are early Washington varieties and popular with consumers.

Washington shippers likely will start with prices slightly lower but still profitable to establish good momentum, Grim said. “That’s key because its easier to raise them later than go the other way,” he said.

O’Rourke said marketers can’t let inventory build up. They did so in 2008 and “paid the price after Christmas when prices took a tumble,” he said.

Moving this size of crop “definitely will be a challenge,” he said. Downward price pressure could hit East Coast apple producers more because they have older varieties and consumers like the variety of cultivars Washington offers, he said.

As of Aug. 1, there were 8 million boxes of Washington’s 2013 apple crop left to sell. Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said that should be enough to dovetail with the new crop.

“It’s not going to be the easiest thing in the world, but I think it will be okay,” Kelly said of keep new-crop prices strong.

As of Aug. 2, the wholesale price of old crop Red Delicious was $18.26 per box versus $20.08 a year earlier and $18.85 two years prior, he said. Gala was $25.10 versus $27.79 and $24.07.

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