Washington farmers see apples, grapes take 6% jump from 2011 crops

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 4, 2013 

Washington's grape and apple farmers grew fruit worth a record amount last year.

Apples and grapes helped the state's overall agricultural production reach $9.9 billion. That's 6 percent jump from 2011, according to data released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Apples remain the state's top commodity.

Last year's apple harvest was valued at $2.3 billion, up about 17 percent from the previous year. That was thanks to farmers receiving record high prices for their largest ever crop -- 129 million, 40-pound boxes.

A lack of apples coming out of the Midwest and East Coast drove those record prices, said Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission.

Farmers also benefited from weather that allowed apples to be picked into December to meet that high demand.

Washington's grape crop, including wine and juice grapes, jumped 25 percent in value from the previous year, to $235.9 million, according to the data.

The state's juice grape crop was up from 2011, at about 173,900 tons last year, with steady prices thanks to a low grape supply in other juice-grape growing areas including California and Argentina.

And wine grape growers crushed a record amount of wine grapes, about 188,000 tons, up by 32 percent, according to the USDA.

Despite gains in apples, grapes and wheat, other Mid-Columbia crops, including hay, milk, potatoes, cherries and blueberries, saw production values fall last year.

While the value of Washington's cherries were down by about 6 percent to $499 million last year, Northwest growers picked the state's largest ever sweet cherry crop, at 23 million 20-pound boxes.

Washington grows about 80 percent of the nation's sweet cherries. The Northwest region also includes Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Sweet cherries are becoming more important to the state's economy, said James Michael, vice president of marketing for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.

There was a lot of pent up demand for the crop of 18 million boxes, he said. And weather issues affected other crops, making cherries one of the few with a steady supply during certain times in the summer.

Although last year didn't set value records, Michael said prices were still better than in 2009 when the Northwest had its first 20 million box crop of sweet cherries.

As for blueberries, Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission in Eltopia, said he doesn't think the USDA's estimate of $85.4 million for last year was correct. That would be a 30 percent drop from the previous year.

While blueberry prices dropped, Schreiber said, they weren't down that much. And the state's production was up to 70 million pounds of blueberries last year, he said.

"Washington is one of the fastest growing areas of blueberry production in the world," Schreiber said. And some of the quickest growth is occurring near the Tri-Cities.

Other Mid-Columbia crops include:

-- Wheat, the state's second-most valued commodity after apples, was valued at $1.2 billion, almost 4 percent higher than the previous year.

Washington farmers harvested 146 million bushels last year, down 13 percent from 2011. But the average price per bushel was up by 19 percent to $8.07, according to the USDA.

Benton County farmers harvested 93,000 acres of wheat last year, while Franklin County had 69,300 and Walla Walla County had 195,900.

-- Milk, the state's third-most valuable commodity, was down to almost $1.2 billion, a 9 percent decline from the previous year.

Benton, Franklin, Klickitat and Yakima counties have 91 dairies and more than 110,000 cows.

-- Potatoes, Washington's fourth top commodity, also declined by 9 percent to $700 million in 2012.

Growers for the fresh market, which makes up about 10 percent of Washington's crop, lost money on their crop after concerns about a nationwide overplanting caused fresh market prices to plummet.

Benton County farmers grow about 32,000 acres, while Franklin County farmers grow about 28,000 acres of potatoes, according to the USDA. Walla Walla County grows about 10,000 acres of potatoes.

-- Hay, the state's fifth top commodity, dropped by nearly 5 percent to $678.7 million. Most of the Columbia Basin's alfalfa hay is grown for export.

Benton County has about 14,000 acres of alfalfa and 7,000 acres of other types of hay, while Franklin County has about 86,500 acres of alfalfa and 31,000 acres of other types of hay.

Walla Walla County has about 13,500 acres of alfalfa hay and about 3,000 acres of other types of hay.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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