A recent article by Ross Courtney in the Yakima Herald highlights the mounting problems of apple growers in Washington.
Heat stress, water shortages and other factors likely will combine to make the 2015 apple crop smaller than last year’s record-setter, which comes as no surprise to growers. But the industry has expanded so much recently that this year’s harvest won’t be far behind 2014 — in fact, is estimated to be the third-largest, just behind the 128.3 million boxes marketed from the 2012 crop, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima.“Consumers can expect to enjoy an ample supply of delicious Washington apples this year,” DeVaney said.
Central Washington’s apple growers anticipate picking 125.2 million 40-pound boxes of fresh-market apples this year, down 10.5 percent from the 140 million in 2014, the highest ever. The state’s fruit industry sells fresh apples all year. Last year’s crop, estimated at 150 million boxes in December, dwindled to 140 million by last week’s final storage report because of shipping problems at the West Coast ports. Those issues left more fruit to be rerouted to processors, or in some extreme cases, used as compost or cattle feed.
Meanwhile, this season has arrived a good seven to 10 days early for apples, as it has for every other Central Washington crop, due to a mild winter and early, warm spring. Growers started picking Gingergolds, an early-season variety, near the Tri-Cities and in Grant County at the tail end of July. The harvest will work its way up the Yakima Valley and north, nearly to the Canadian border, through November.
Apples are far and away the state’s most valuable agricultural product. The 2012 crop brought farmers $2.25 billion in direct sales, double the value of second-place wheat, and attracted more than 40,000 seasonal workers in the peak months of September and October. The 2012 harvest contributed $7.5 billion indirectly to the state economy, according to the Tree Fruit Association.
Washington routinely produces more than 60 percent of the nation’s apples, while Yakima County is the largest apple-packing county in the United States.Heat and drought aside, this year’s estimate may have been lower than 2014 in any event. Apples typically bear in two-year cycles in which low yields typically follow high yields, like in 2014. However, growers expect this year’s extreme heat and drought conditions will dampen the volume even more.
“We’re not going to pick as many apples as we did last year,” Rick Plath, president of Washington Fruit and Produce in Yakima, said in a recent telephone interview.
Individual apples will be smaller, while packing houses will cull more than usual because of sunburn from weeks of triple-digit temperatures.
“It’s not good for the fruit,” Rene Garcia, vice president of G&G Orchards in Tieton, said recently.
Garcia anticipates an industry-wide 90 percent “pack-out,” the percentage of apples good enough to pack in fresh boxes because they are not damaged, soft or bruised. Packers usually try to sell the discarded apples to processors such as Tree Top for juice, apple sauce and other products.
Meanwhile, some growers ripped out trees in response to last year’s oversupply. Garcia pulled 10 acres of Golden Delicious, which would have yielded about 10,000 boxes.For years, the industry has gradually been replacing traditional varieties such as Golden Delicious and Red Delicious, with hot-selling Galas, Honeycrisps and other newer varieties.DeVaney said this year’s forecast continues to reflect the changing composition of the state’s apple crop.
While Red Delicious remains the most numerous variety with a projected 25 percent of production, he said, Gala is close behind at 23 percent, followed by Fuji at 13.7 percent and Granny Smith at 13 percent of total production. This year, Honeycrisp is forecast to come in at 7 percent of the total crop, which would move it past Golden Delicious to become the fifth-ranked variety by production volume in the state.
To cope with the sun and water shortage, more growers this year have tried draping their trees in shade cloths, especially over thin-skinned and high-value Honeycrisps.“No better year to try it than a year like this,” said Brad Carpenter, a partner at Carpenter Farms in Granger.Normally, growers use sprinklers mounted high above the trees to cool fruit, but during this year’s water rationing, they often needed all the water they could get for the tree roots. Growers also spray a white, clay-like substance on apples that acts as sunscreen.
Shade cloths are an expensive solution. No less than 20 employees spent a week stretching shade over 7 acres at Carpenter Farms, said foreman Felipe Avalos. McDougall and Sons, a Wenatchee company with orchards in Grant County, spent $11,000 shading apples this year, said co-president Scott McDougall.Heat and drought may have tipped the scales, but many growers have wanted to experiment with shade cloths anyway. Proposed rules over irrigation water sanitation coming from the federal Food and Drug Administration may limit the use of overhead sprinklers in the future. Meanwhile, McDougall tried to use the cloths for hail protection this year, too.