Workers will start plucking Golden Delicious apples from trees around the Tri-Cities next week.
It's the variety that kicks off apple harvest for farmers whose apples are packed by Douglas Fruit Co. of Pasco.
"The fruit quality looks good, fruit size looks good," said David Douglas, a principal owner.
Harvest will run into November, with different varieties being picked as harvest continues.
Douglas Fruit Co. packs 10 varieties of apples grown by members of the Douglas family and other independent growers. The company also packs other types of tree fruit.
A few summer varieties already are being harvested, Douglas said.
Growers enjoyed a perfect spring, but summer wasn't as cooperative.
"Everything said we were going to have a massive crop," said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.
But then June brought cool temperatures, and July came with hail, so the amount of fresh apples expected in the state was reduced from what would have been a record-setting 120 million bushels to 108.8 million bushels of apples, he said. It takes about 43 pounds to make a bushel.
Still, this year's crop is expected to be the state's second largest, Fryhover said.
Hail affected almost every apple growing region in the state, Douglas said. It was the largest number of hail storms and the most severe that Douglas said he has seen.
Damage from hail means a lot of fruit will go directly from the orchards to processors, said Douglas, the vice president of the Washington Apple Commission board. Still, some apples that make it into the fresh packing plant won't head to grocery stores or be exported as fresh apples.
"We are trying to grow fruit that will be sold on the fresh market," he said.
That's where return is greatest, Douglas said. Apples that can't make it as fresh will end up as juice concentrate or peeled and sold as food ingredients.
Despite the hail, it looks like a good marketing season for apples, he said. Prices are good.
Benton County has 11,859 acres of apple orchards with about 7.9 million trees, while Franklin County has 13,307 acres with about 7.6 million trees, according to the 2011 Washington Tree Acreage Report.
Statewide, there are about 162,000 acres of apple orchards, Fryhover said. In general, the orchards follow the rivers of Eastern Washington.
Last year, Washington orchards produced about 108 million bushels, the fourth-most ever, Fryhover said.
Apples contribute about $7 billion to the state's economy each year, he said. Washington is the top grower in the nation, representing about 60 percent of U.S. fresh apples.
As of now, Douglas said, orchardists have enough workers to handle harvest, but he does anticipate some challenges.
Fryhover said they won't really know how labor looks until mid-September, which is a concern for growers because apples are hand-picked, he said.
Seasonal labor is critical to orchardists, and deciding when apples are ready to harvest is a mix of art and science, Douglas said.
Growers use things such as a handheld device called a penetrometer to measure the pounds-per-square-inch of an apple and determine the pressure, he said. They also measure the amount of sugar and starch.
Harvest also is based on appearance, Douglas said.
Growers like to color-pick apples, but depending on labor availability and weather, they will instruct workers to pick all the apples on a tree at once, which is called strip picking, Douglas said.
Once an apple enters Douglas Fruit Co.'s packing plant in a bin, it is washed, waxed and stickered before being packed in a cardboard boxes and cooled down. It will be transported by refrigerated truck or an ocean container depending on where it is headed. Apples also are placed in controlled atmosphere storage.
Fuji, Gala, Red Delicious and Granny Smith represent the largest volume, Douglas said.
About one-third of Douglas Fruit Co. packed apples will be exported, which is the statewide average. Fryhover said Washington apples head to about 60 foreign markets.
Exporting apples remains important because domestic consumption of apples declines, Fryhover said. Reasons for the decline of apples in the American diet include the increase of other types of fruit are available year-round and the rise of fast food.