Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

Another Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference has come and gone, and though the annual production of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association is a mere 24 hours long (Thursday afternoon and evening, Friday morning), it still manages to pack in plenty of good stuff.

One of the big changes at this year’s Chicago conference was a new approach to making the annual estimate.

Thanks to federal budget cuts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t produce its annual apple crop estimate this year.

The USDA numbers have always been the starting point for the estimate U.S. Apple hashes out the first day of the convention and presents at the end of the second.

This year, U.S. Apple was on its own. Mark Seetin, the association’s director of regulatory and industry affairs, led the effort to gather intel from state-level associations in Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the other top-producing states.

It seems to have worked just fine.

The pre-conference U.S. Apple forecasts for Michigan, Pennsylvania and industry No. 5 Virginia stood pat for the official Day 2 estimate.

Washington’s estimate went down about 4 million bushels, thanks to some August hail, and New York’s went up 1.5 million bushels, thanks to near-perfect late-season growing conditions.

“It’s the first time we’ve done it without USDA numbers, and I think we’re off to a good start,” Mark Nicholson, U.S. Apple’s secretary and executive vice president of Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, N.Y., told attendees. “We had to build it from scratch.”

The apple industry’s varietal landscape continues to change, Seetin told attendees.

In 2001, gala production was the fourth-biggest variety in the country, behind (in order) red delicious, golden delicious and fujis.

By this year, galas had shot up to No. 2, Seetin said, and goldens plunged four spots to No. 5. Since 1997, gala production has increased an astounding 400%, Seetin said.

Reds and fujis held their positions at one and three, respectively, and granny smiths moved up a spot.

It will be interesting to see how long the venerable red can hold off the seemingly unstoppable rise of the gala.

One grower I talked to recently in Michigan said that for the first time, he expects to ship more galas than reds this year. My guess is that’s true of many growers throughout the country and world.

But with increased production nationwide, growers will need to rely more and more on export markets to move all this new fruit, and reds continue to be a top draw down south and overseas, grower-shippers and officials say.

U.S. exports rose 17% in 2012-13, generating a record $1.16 billion in sales.

At the U.S. apple meeting, Seetin broke down the percentages: about 30% of those exports went to Mexico, 18% to Canada, 9% to Taiwan, 7% to India and 5% to Indonesia. The balance was divided among several other countries.

There are still plenty of U.S. growers banking on growing a better red instead of getting on the gala or Honeycrisp bandwagon.

For all the good news in the apple industry, there are a few clouds on the horizon.

Per-capita consumption has remained fairly stagnant, Seetin said, which provides marketers with opportunities but also with challenges, particularly with a crop expected to be 13% bigger than last season.

“This year presents a unique challenge to the industry,” Seetin told attendees. “The challenge is to develop orderly marketing programs.”

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