Washington apple growers may be looking at a smaller crop than last year's record-breaking bounty, but they still expect abundant high quality fruit.
The first apples that make up Washington's most valuable crop will be plucked from trees this weekend. Statewide, growers will start harvesting early varieties such as Galas in the next week.
Preliminary estimates put this year's crop at about 120 million 40-pound boxes, which would make it the state's second largest crop, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House.
"This looks like a pretty good crop to deal with," Kelly said.
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Projections for this year's harvest are down about 7 percent from last year's record setting 129 million box crop, which blew out Washington's previous record of 109 million boxes.
Last year, Washington growers tried to harvest every apple possible to take advantage of the demand created when other apple-growing states including New York and Michigan lost a lot of crops.
"We were able to fill the gap, so to speak, with our large crop," Kelly said.
On top of workers hand picking a record number of apples, growers also received higher than normal prices, Kelly said. But they also had record expenses.
The total value of Washington's 2012 apple crop won't be released until later this year.
Apples, Washington's top commodity, were worth about $1.83 billion in 2011, when orchards produced 108 million boxes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.But this year, it doesn't look like Washington growers will see the same advantageous market as they did last year.
Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, said both New York and Michigan are anticipating better than normal crops.
And Washington growers have been talking about lighter crops for some varieties such as Golden Delicious and Fuji, Fryhover said.
However, the Gala crop is expected to be normal, and more Granny Smiths are anticipated.
Some of the crop increase reflects how new varieties planted in the last five years, such as Honeycrisp and Gala, are starting to produce in volume, Fryhover said.
And growers are doing a better job of producing more fruit per acre, he said.
Washington, which produces the most apples in the nation, has about 146,000 acres of apples, with Benton and Franklin counties representing more than 19,000 acres of orchards, according to the USDA.
Some orchards were hit by hail earlier this year, but the amount of damage is unknown at this point, Fryhover said.
And this year's hot weather, with days hitting over 100 degrees, could reduce the apples that are packed, since the sunburned ones will be thrown out, he said.
"We are very optimistic for another excellent quality crop," Fryhover said.
Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, said farmers had a good growing season with an early bloom and good heat after the bloom.
"It's set a really nice crop of apples," he said.
Hail damage appears to be minimal, Pepperl said.
Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee will start picking Galas this weekend, Pepperl said. Stemilt also will start harvesting SweeTangos, a stripy red apple bred from Honeycrisp that offers a deeper taste and is picked earlier in the season.
"We have a real nice crop," Pepperl said.
Stemilt, which has orchards and some growers in the Tri-City area, grows about 10 different varieties. In high demand are Fujis and Galas.
By the end of next week, Pepperl said they expect to start packing apples.
And Tri-Citians may see fresh Galas at retailers within the next week or so, Pepperl said.
"We are going to have lots of good sizes," he said.
Stemilt also should have a nice Pinata crop this year, Pepperl said. The apple has a classic flavor with a tropical twist, and is a mix of Golden Delicious, Cox's Orange Pippin and the Duchess of Oldenburg.
Pepperl said Pinatas won't be picked until October, so most retailers will likely start carrying the apple in November.
Some orchards will be picked into November, depending on the weather.
While many Washington apples will be offered to consumers by retailers across the nation, about 35 percent of the state's apple crop is exported, Fryhover said.
"Washington grows the best apples in the world," he said. "We can compete in foreign markets."
Fryhover is relatively optimistic about the export market for this season's apple crop. However, he said it's difficult to tell how the increasing strength of the dollar will affect exports.
Washington exported more of last season's crop to Canada and Mexico, Fryhover said. He anticipates Mexico being a critical market for Washington growers this season.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com