Hailstorm dents Washington’s cushion for East, Midwest buyers

08/03/2012 05:46:00 AM
Tom Karst

A hailstorm has battered expectations that a huge Washington apple crop this fall could override low supplies from short crops in Eastern and Midwest apple growing regions.

Hail-damaged applesFile photoHailstones ranging from marble to pingpong ball size, and more rarely, tennis ball-sized stones battered apple crops.Previous estimates of a record fresh market apple crop of 120 million cartons or more for Washington apple marketers have been tossed aside after a series of hailstorms on July 20, with expectations of a production drop of 10% to 25%.

“We were going to be able to cover quite a few local deals, but that is probably not going to happen now,” said Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash.

“As far as us being a relief valve for the Eastern United States and eastern Canada, we lost a significant amount of fruit that we would be filling those pipelines with,” said Bob Mast, vice president of marketing at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Columbia Marketing International Corp.

Mast said apple marketers may develop a “hail-grade” bag program for red delicious and perhaps other varieties. Hail-grade fruit typically have dimples that get a brown, russeted look. However, he said internal quality of hail grade fruit is good.

He said retailers may be motivated to merchandise a wider variety of sizes in premium bulk displays.

“Instead of carrying straight 88s, they may have to carry 88s or 100s to stay in good supplies,” Mast said.

Despite the hail, industry leaders said the fresh market crop is expected to come in at close to the state’s 5-year average at perhaps in the range of 100 million cartons to 110 million cartons.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House, said he has heard reports that hail damage could be in the range of 10%. Some areas were not affected at all and other orchards were hit hard.

“This will impact the crop significantly,” said Tim Smith, Wenatchee, Wash.-based Washington State University Extension plant pathologist and tree fruit specialist.

Smith said he has heard heard damage estimates from 10% to 25%. The apple industry in Washington plans to release a crop forecast early the week of Aug. 6 and the first U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast is slated for Aug. 10. Smith called the hail damage the worst he has ever seen, with hail stones ranging from marble to ping pong ball size, and more rarely, tennis ball-sized stones.

“At times it hailed for 10 or 15 minutes straight,” Smith said. One band of hail was described as 10 miles long and 15 miles wide through the heart of fruit country.

Smith said damage to apple orchards ranges from zero damage in areas to orchards where trees were stripped of leaves and spurs. “There was some very serious damage, but that is limited acreage,” he said.

The hardest hit region was the mid- and lower- Yakima Valley, Smith said, and a growing region called the Royal Slope.

Washington state hailstorms typically are insignificant to the crop size, but the July 20 hailstorm will affect the outcome of the season, he said.

While packinghouses usually pack above grade, Smith said the hail may cause some packinghouses to pack to actual grade standards, and lower-grade fruit may have more value this year.

Buyers from Michigan have been asking about lower-grade apples in Washington, Kelly said. “Demand will be higher for the lower-end fruit, and that will benefit the Washington industry if we end up having more than normal low-end fruit,” he said.

Hail-grade fruit could find a home at some roadside stands, one industry observer said.

Beyond supplying retailers, Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash., said apple marketers in the East and Midwest are concerned about how they will supply alternative markets such as farmers markets. O’Rourke said it wouldn’t be good for a farmers market in Michigan to be without apples in October.



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