Washington apple shippers and packers say this year's fresh apple crop will reach record highs despite early worries about hail damage and not enough pickers.
The apple crop is expected to hit 121.5 million boxes, according to a recent poll by Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
That number of 40-pound boxes is what Jon DeVaney, the association's executive director, said they estimate based on what packers currently have in storage. It reflects the apples that they think will be packed for fresh market, and does not include processing apples.
The nationwide shortage of apples has spiked demand for Washington's fruit, DeVaney said.
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"We had a good perfect storm of crop size and market demand," he said.
That means the industry can continue to expect good prices, bringing a large amount of money into the state economy from apples, he said.
Washington is the top apple grower in the nation, representing about 60 percent of U.S. fresh apples. Harvest continues this month, including Pink Lady and Fuji varieties.
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 this year," he said.
Along with the sheer number of apples, the state also is seeing large, high-quality fruit, 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 up harvest about two to three weeks ahead of normal. He said they had the apples picked by September.
"This year, the quality of the apples for us was especially good," he said.
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 last five years, she said.
Mexico's own apple crop is down by about 50 percent this year, she said.
"There is definitely going to be a market for every apple that Washington state can pack this year," DeVaney said.
Demand for Washington apples for processing also is up because of lower harvests in the Midwest and East Coast. So far, 5.4 million boxes of the state's apples have gone to processing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That compares with not quite 3 million boxes at this time in 2011.
In total, about 20.4 million boxes of Washington apples were processed from the 2011 crop, according to the USDA. That is in addition to the fresh crop of 108 million boxes last year.
Washington's apple crop has been trending up. Overall, the state's apple industry has continued to grow, DeVaney said.
Washington farmers have planted denser orchards, added acres and increase the efficiency of production, Newhouse said.
DeVaney said the crop is about what people thought it would be in early summer before hail hit orchards across the state. Then, the estimate dropped to about 110 million boxes.
However, there were more apples on trees and less hail damage than people thought, he said.
Weather conditions have meant apples can stay on the tree longer, which has lengthened harvest and allowed the apples to get bigger, Newhouse said.
That lengthened harvest has helped ease some of the labor concerns, DeVaney said.
Still, Middleton said farmers saw increased labor costs because of competition for agricultural workers in general. That, combined with the increases to fuel and fertilizer costs, brought up the cost of growing fruit.
Good prices for apples helped balance those costs.
This fresh apple crop is 11 percent larger than the 109.4 million boxes packed in 2010, DeVaney said. An analysis done by the Washington Apple Commission found that the 2010 crop had a $7 billion economic impact on the state.
DeVaney said they can expect this crop to have a huge economic impact. It will mean more trucks on the road, more packing materials that need to be bought and more shifts of workers to pack the fruit.
And bringing apples into new markets because of the decreased supply elsewhere could help improve future apple demand, he said.
"We are always looking at expanding our presence in different markets," Newhouse said.
In addition to crop records, DeVaney said they are also setting records on how quickly they are shipping the crop this year. Last year, about 13.4 percent of the 108.8 million boxes had been shipped around this time. This year, he said they have already shipped 15.7 percent.
The state has been able to keep up with the increased volume of apples being shipped, Newhouse said. Inspectors check each shipment. Newhouse said it's important for the state to keep up and not keep commerce waiting.
"They are moving apples like you wouldn't believe," Newhouse said.