Washington apple crop steady

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Lori Wacker levels bins of Cripps Pink apples at her Highlander Orchard northwest of Wenatchee, Wash., Nov. 4. It's one of the last varieties harvested and contributed to a slight increase in total crop size on Dec. 1.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Washington’s apple crop held steady at 113.3 million, 40-pound, fresh-packed boxes, an increase of just 110,000 from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1.

While prices and exports have slipped from a year ago, when domestic sales are taken into account they are still relatively good given the size of the crop and increased competition from a year ago, industry officials say.

The crop remains the second largest ever, after last year’s record 128.2 million fresh boxes, and is competing with larger New York, Michigan, Canadian, Mexican and European production.

“At this stage of the game we’re in OK shape,” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

“You always want to do better, but overall we’re good,” he said.

As of Dec. 1, 28 million boxes had been shipped compared to 31.5 million at the same time last year and 25.3 million two years ago, he said. Sales are still clipping along at 2.7 million boxes per week and should remain at that level into spring, possibly peaking around 3 million per week in January, he said.

With more competition, prices have fallen for all five top volume varieties compared with a year ago, but season-to-date average prices are nowhere near in trouble, Kelly said.

Red Delicious has slipped the most to $17.57 per box on Dec. 3 compared with $22.74 a year ago and $19.24 two years ago, he said. The $17.57 may be getting close to the break-even price for growers, while the other varieties are well above break-even, he said. Gala has held better at $23.61 compared with $26.48 last year and $22.78 the year before.

Prices are likely to firm up in January as poorer quality fruit is sold out and East Coast competition wanes, he said.

Exports are down 10 percent from a year ago at 8.4 million boxes as of Dec. 1 compared with 9.4 million at the same time in 2012 and 7.8 million in 2011.

“Nobody expects us to beat the numbers of last year. We have more competition from everywhere,” Kelly said. “Last year, everyone was down but us.”

Washington exported a record 40.5 million boxes of apples from the 2012 crop and is on pace to reach 36 million to 37 million this season, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee.

“We’re predictably comfortable so far, but being off 10 percent is not good,” he said. The commission is the industry’s export promotions arm.

Mexico and Canada are Washington’s largest apple export markets and their continued role is important, Fryhover said.

Mexico normally takes 10 million to 11 million boxes annually but hit 13.6 million last year, he said. Canada averages 5 million to 6 million and last year took 6.35 million boxes, he said.

Thus far this season, Canada is at 1.2 million boxes and Mexico is just getting started at 1 million, he said. There’s a 40-day mandatory pest-control cold treatment for U.S. apples heading to Mexico, so sales will ramp up significantly before Christmas, Fryhover said. Exports to Taiwan will increase in January for the Chinese New Year and, if China reopens soon, that will help, he said.

Shippers are “cautiously optimistic” about the season, given more competition and a large crop, Fryhover said.

“We have a few more lower grades pushing down prices, but premium prices are good. We have more larger fruit and it has to have a competitive price to move quickly,” he said. “Things are better than several weeks ago when it looked like we would have a 120-million-box crop.”

The crop’s current standing at 113.3 million boxes is up .1 percent from the Nov. 1 storage report, down 5.5 percent from the Aug. 1 forecast of 119.8 million boxes and down 11.7 percent from the record 128.2-million-box 2012 crop.

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