Good weather and smaller harvests in the rest of the United States and Europe saved Washington’s largest-ever apple crop in 2012.
Weather conditions meant apples could stay on the tree longer, adding time to the harvest and easing concerns of a shortage of workers to hand-pick Washington’s most valuable crop.
Smaller apple crops elsewhere helped pump up the price for Washington’s harvest, which totaled almost 130 million 40-pound boxes, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House.
Because of a “perfect storm,” Washington’s record apple crop came at a time when the competition had fewer apples than normal to offer, Kelly said. Quality and size also have been good.
The 2012 crop was about 19 percent larger than Washington’s former record crop of 109 million boxes.
Washington apples were worth about $1.83 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And Washington orchards produced 108 million boxes that year, the fourth-most ever.
Benton and Franklin counties have more than 19,000 acres of apple orchards, according to the USDA.
A record crop sets Washington up to benefit, as other apple-growing areas and other nations have not been as fortunate, said Dan Newhouse, state Department of Agriculture director.
“We are one of the few regions of the world that have actually had pretty ideal weather conditions,” he said.
Along with the sheer number of apples, the state also is seeing large, high-quality fruit, Newhouse said.
Washington’s apple crop has been trending up. Overall, the state’s apple industry has continued to grow, said Jon DeVaney, the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association’s executive director.
Washington farmers have planted denser orchards, added acres and increased production efficiency, Newhouse said.
At Middleton Organic Orchards in Eltopia, owner Gary Middleton said they saw a strong demand for their Gala, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples early in the season thanks to the smaller harvests in other states and countries.
That caused Middleton and his workers to finish the 2012 harvest about two to three weeks ahead of normal. He said they had the apples picked by September.
Despite Washington’s apple boom, the U.S. had its smallest crop in 26 years, Kelly said. Washington typically provides about two-thirds of the nation’s apples. Michigan and New York, the only other two big U.S. apple-growing states, suffered crop losses last year.
Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission, expects the state will export less than the one-third of the crop that normally heads to foreign markets because of the increased demand within the U.S.
“I think we will be able to move this fruit both domestically and internationally at prices that will be quite good for the grower,” Lyons said.
Mexico is the No. 1 destination for exported Washington apples, followed by Canada. Taiwan has the largest demand for Fuji apples, and India’s demand for Red Delicious has grown in the past five years, she said.
The booming business is necessary because labor and fuel costs continue to increase, making it more costly for farmers to grow and harvest apples, Kelly said.
“It is a good year for growers, but they also need one,” Kelly said.
When the Herald originally ran the State of Ag series in September 2012, farmers weren’t sure they would have enough workers to hand-pick all the apples for both the fresh market and processors, who use apples for juice, applesauce, cider and ingredients.
While some farmers were short on workers, weather allowed for the available workers to pick on more days during the harvest season. Having enough workers remains a concern for apple farmers, as well as farmers of other labor-intensive crops such as cherries, asparagus and blueberries.
The peak worker demand for apple harvest starts the last week of September and continues through most of October, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House. In October 2010, about 43,500 seasonal workers were employed in apple harvesting.
With production dramatically increasing, the demand for seasonal farmworkers has rapidly grown and exceeded the labor supply, he said.
Ron Reimann of T&R Farms in Franklin County said he had trouble finding enough workers in 2012 for thinning his 40 acres of apples and adding 66 new acres.
Although apple trees can be chemically thinned, Reimann said workers still have to pinch off apple blossoms by hand. Otherwise, they may have a huge crop one year and nothing the next.
Reimann said they thought long and hard about adding the acreage because of labor issues, but the extra land is needed to diversify the crop. They are adding Buckeye Gala, a new variety. It will take about three years before the trees planted in 2012 will produce a crop.
At the peak of harvest, Reimann said they have about 35 employees. They will need closer to 50 once the new trees are producing apples.