Washington apple growers having big year

Crop up 20 percent from previous two years

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WENATCHEE — If there’s ever been an apple crop to celebrate in recent years, it is the 2012 crop.

The record 130 million box fresh crop jumped more than 20 percent from what was packed the previous two years. It also came at a time when apple harvests in all other states and nearly every foreign country were significantly down.

The result has been something that almost never happens: record shipments at record prices and a boom for Washington apple-packing houses and growers.

“This will be one of the years we’ll remember,” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, a cooperative organization that tracks fruit prices.

Out-of-towners and residents new to the area may not know why there’s so much fuss and celebration of apples or why Wenatchee holds the annual Washington State Apple Blossom Festival. Wenatchee has grown in many ways over the years, but apples are still the core of the valley’s economy. Most of the orchards have moved farther from town, but close to half of the state’s crop is still packed, shipped or overseen from the Wenatchee Valley.

For more than a century, Washington has been one of the world’s leading apple producers. Today, the state produces about 65 percent of the nation’s apples. The Wenatchee area and Wenatchee River Valley also produce, pack and ship more cherries and winter pears than anywhere else in the nation.

This past year has been very special for apple growers.

“It was a banner year. We many never see one like that again,” said Tim Smith, Washington State University tree fruit extension agent for the region. Even the bad apples culled from the crop for juice and sauce brought great returns from processing companies in other states, he said.

“We’re in an industry that profits by the misfortune of others,” Smith said. “It was a down year for others and an up year for us.”

Kelly said: “It was the largest volume crop, the largest shipments and the best prices that we’ve ever seen.” He said 17 of the 20 top shipping weeks ever were this crop year.

Wholesale prices for the crop are well above the previous year, averaging more than $25 per 40-pound box of all grade and size apples. Some hot varieties in short supply, such as Honeycrisp, brought more than $50 a box.

Last year’s average price for all apples was $22 a box, the year before, $19.50, both very good prices. A decade ago, when crop size first jumped 20 percent to over 100 million boxes for the first time, prices dropped from $18 to $13 a box on average. Some years returns have fallen to less than the cost of production.

“It’s hard to find anything negative about last year’s crop,” Kelly said. “This is definitely going to help people put money away for other years and pay off some debt.”

Multiply that $25 average this year by 130 million boxes and you get $3.25 billion in sales alone, not counting any other economic multipliers that the apple industry brings to the state, said Charlie Pomianek, manager of the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, which tracks fruit shipments.

He said the huge crop has been selling very well and is right on target to be sold out by this year’s harvest in October. About 65 percent of the crop has sold so far. The biggest week of sales was in early December, when 3,281,000 boxes of Washington apples were shipped.

“That’s 550 truckloads every day that week. Those are dramatic numbers,” Pomianek said. Sales of apples, as well as pears and cherries, are the reason why the valley has done pretty well during the nation’s economic downturn, he said.

Shipped all over world

The record year speaks well of the magnitude of the state’s premier crop, which is shipped all over the world. Nearly a third of the crop is exported to foreign countries. Most of the crop goes to other states. New York and Michigan, the nation’s second- and third-leading apple-producing states, pack about 20 million boxes each on a good year. Pennsylvania produces about 10 million boxes. All seem puny compared to 130 million boxes Washington growers expect to pack from last year’s harvest. An that doesn’t even count about 30 percent of the crop that goes to processors.

Big crops will surely come again. It’s too early for an accurate estimate of this year’s crop, but industry officials say it’s likely to be in the 120 million box range, still way more than the 109 million boxes packed from harvests in 2010 and 2011.

State apple volume has jumped to another level due to new orchards coming into production. Strong prices the past several years have led to continued mega-scale orchard plantings in the Columbia Basin by large fruit-packing companies, Smith said. They’re not the wide-spaced trees of the past, but “super orchards,” he said, that can yield 70 bins per acre.

“It takes tremendous investment, but they’re getting their money back in seven or eight years,” said Smith.

“We’re going to have more big crops down the road. We’ve jumped to another level,” said Kelly. If production is high in other states and other countries - as is expected this year following a low production year - prices are sure to drop.

“This year could be much more of a challenge,” he said.