Washington farmers are preparing to hand pick a record apple harvest starting this week.
The estimated 140.2 million, 40-pound boxes of the state’s top crop are what growers have been expecting and planning for.
“This is the crop the industry is confident it can successfully market,” said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
Farmers have been replacing older orchards with denser plantings of apple trees, adding to total production, DeVaney said.
While production has boomed, acreage has changed little, at more than 174,000 acres.
The varieties of apples have become more diverse as growers try to provide the tastes and colors consumers want.
Overall, farmers have been reporting minimal weather damage, DeVaney said. Some orchards were hit with hail or sun damage, but the harm hasn’t been widespread.
The size and quality of apples are looking good, DeVaney said. Of course, a lot could happen between now and November to change how many apples are harvested.
At Middleton Organic Orchards near Eltopia, Gary Middleton said he still has sunburned fruit despite aggressively using sprays to minimize the amount of UV rays absorbed into the skins.
Sun -damaged apples will be left on the trees because there isn’t a market for them, he said.
“This heat has been unforgiving,” Middleton said. He hasn’t seen the cool nights that typically help balance out warm days.
Middleton said his employees also have been working fewer hours because of the heat. They are in the orchards as soon as it’s possible to see, and they stop once it hits about 90.
Still, he’s expecting high-quality, if slightly smaller, apples from the early varieties. Middleton will start picking Galas on Aug. 18.
Later apples will still have a chance to grow once the weather cools, he said.
The Tri-City area is one of the earliest to start harvesting.
Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties have about 30,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Washington’s apple crop tends to alternate large crops with smaller ones. Last year’s crop, which is still being shipped to market, will total about 115 million boxes, DeVaney said.
Farmers are expecting this year to pick almost 12 million boxes more than in 2012, when the record was set at 128.3 million boxes. That crop was valued at $2.3 billion.
In 2012, other apple growing states and Europe had smaller crops, creating a demand for the extra Washington apples.
DeVaney expects this year will be more competitive, because production in the rest of the nation has rebounded.
But the quality of Washington apples will help as they market the crop, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.
He anticipates maintaining or expanding in the markets where the state’s apples already are sold.
Washington tends to export about a third of its crop, but DeVaney said industry officials are focusing on increasing exports as the crop expands.
The state’s proximity to major Pacific Rim ports gives it a competitive advantage, he said.
Overall, Asian and Latin American countries are the state’s biggest export markets for apples. But as individual countries such as Canada and Mexico import the most Washington apples.
One issue farmers are facing this year is a possible worker shortage.
There were labor shortages in 2012, but farmers were able to harvest that record crop into December because of mild weather.
This year, farmers who use the federal H-2A guestworker program to supplement domestic workers may see their foreign crews arriving later.
Delays at the border could mean workers are two weeks later than requested.
Apple harvest peaks in September and October, and tends to wrap up in November.
-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com