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Improved weather, longer harvest window help Yakima Valley apple crop

By Joel Donofrio, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: October 23, 2023, 8:03am

YAKIMA — Predictions of a strong apple crop are nice, but the proof of a strong season is in the packing.

Fruit packing facilities are busy places this fall as boxes filled with Red Delicious, Cosmic Crisp and other late-season apple varieties are transported from orchards across the Yakima Valley.

“It’s definitely a larger than expected crop,” said Brad Newman, president and general manager of Cowiche Growers, as thousands of apples were washed, sorted and packed at the cooperative company’s packing facility on Oct. 14.

“We had good growing conditions this year, and this fall weather of warm days and cool nights helps with the quality of the fruit,” Newman added. “It’s considerably better than last year.”

This season’s improved apple crop has been noted by growers across the Yakima Valley and Central Washington and is a relief after pandemic- and weather-related issues the past three years.

The strong crop is reflected in the U.S. Department of Agriculture apple processing report issued Thursday. The report states apple shipments from the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee District are expected to “increase slightly as additional varieties are harvested.”

Higher prices were reported for Gala and Granny Smith varieties, with lower trading prices for Fuji and Honeycrisp varieties. The USDA report listed Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, the Dominican Republic and Colombia as the top five destinations for Central Washington apple exports.

Higher quality apples seen this fall

In August, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association estimated a statewide crop of just over 134 million standard 40-pound boxes of fresh apples, a 28.8% increase over the 104.3 million boxes harvested in 2022.

The WSTFA has not revised that prediction as the harvest is expected to continue into early November, but organization president Jon DeVaney said growers across the state have reported good quality in their fruit.

“It is too soon to fully assess the final fruit quality on fruit yet to be harvested, but growing conditions remain favorable and the expectation is for good size, color, and overall quality across all varieties this year,” DeVaney told the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Each year, the WSTFA surveys its members at the end of September for a report on what has been actually harvested and is in inventory for early-season apples such as Golden Delicious, Gala and Honeycrisp, DeVaney said.

“Fruit quality is excellent this year,” he said. “Our industry’s crop estimates focus on how much harvested fruit will actually be packed and shipped, counted in 40-pound standard boxes. So even though many of our members reported their bin counts coming in close to expectations, the outstanding fruit quality means that many members are seeing more packable fruit coming out of the orchard.”

The numbers can change based on quality in storage and on market conditions, but right now estimates have increased from August for the three varieties, he said.

On the packing line

The marketability and final destination for fruit are observable inside the dozens of Yakima Valley packing facilities. Thousands of apples an hour are washed, dried and sorted both by machines and workers, with the top-quality fruit either bagged or boxed individually for grocery stores and other retailers.

Newman, the Cowiche Growers president, said his company’s facility is not as large as others in the Yakima Valley, but its process and state-of-the-art equipment are similar.

During the Oct. 14 tour of the Cowiche Growers packing facility near Highland High School, truckloads of large wooden boxes containing Honeycrisp apples picked the previous day arrived.

The apples are loaded onto an assembly line where they are washed, brushed and dried. Fully cleaned, the apples go through an electronic sizer and sorter that identifies the amount of color, size and any defects, Newman said.

“Cameras take pictures of each apple from many different angles,” he added, with the process overseen by workers in a central control booth filled with monitors.

Apples found to have defects are diverted away from the packing area and used for juice, applesauce or other products. The rest travel along a long factory belt and fall down specific chutes according to size and color.

Marketed by Domex Superfresh Growers in the Upper Valley, the Cowiche Growers apples without defects are either bagged in an automated bagging process or placed individually in trays, then shipping boxes by workers who provide a final inspection of the top-quality fruit.

The packing facility operates year-round with 220 employees. Apples are kept in cold storage for sorting and packing during non-harvest months, Newman said, as colder temperatures and lower oxygen levels help slow the ripening process.

While Cowiche Growers averages about 1.5 million boxes of shipped apples a year, Newman expects 2.8 million boxes to be shipped in 2023.

“Last year was a very short crop and that was mostly due to the fruit size. The apples didn’t grow as well last year,” he said. “This year we’ll have double shifts (at the packing facility) for most of the fall.”

The Cowiche Growers packing plant workers usually work one of two eight-hour shifts five days a week, with the hours modified according to the season and the need, Newman said.

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Finishing the harvest

Red Delicious and Cosmic Crisp are among the later varieties to be picked in the orchard and packed each season, and that work is expected to continue into early November, said Gabe Tyrrell, field representative for Cowiche Growers.

The cool nights help with the red color of those later varieties, and the warm days allow workers to make multiple passes through the orchard blocks, Tyrrell said. The Honeycrisp apples being packed on Oct. 14 were picked the previous day on second or third trips through the orchards, he added.

“It’s definitely a different crop than last year,” Tyrrell said. “It’s made the logistics of the harvest pretty easy.”

Tyrrell’s remarks are similar to what DeVaney, with the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, has heard from growers: more marketable fruit and better quality among the state’s most popular apple varieties.

“This effect was most pronounced on Honeycrisp, which typically has lower packs per bin than other varieties, and the excellent growing conditions resulted in a 13.8% increase over the earlier estimate,” DeVaney said. “The increase was smaller, but still significant, for Golden Delicious and Gala at 4.6% and 3.9% respectively.”

Thus far the 2023 harvest is also longer lasting than the previous year, when fruit development was delayed for many apple varieties due to cold spring temperatures and snow that inhibited pollination when apple trees were blooming.

This year, the WSTFA reports that the more moderate spring and summer weather has helped apple growers deliver a healthy crop closer to the previous six-year average production. This return to historic norms is also seen in growers’ reports of good size distribution and expected high quality across all varieties, the organization reported.

Tariffs lifted

Growers received more good news in June as trade officials announced India will lift its tariffs on American-grown apples.

India placed tariffs on apples and other American agricultural products in 2019 in retaliation for steel and aluminum tariffs enacted by the U.S. The combined tariff on apples was 70% after the increases.

Before the tariffs, India was the second largest export market for Washington’s apple crops, representing about $120 million in business. In 2022, Washington exported less than $1 million worth of apples to the country, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office reported.

“It’s great for the state and for consumers around that world that our growers have rebounded from a down year with a strong, healthy crop in 2023,” said Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “More importantly, thanks to moderate weather, the quality of apples is exceptionally high.”