LINDEN, Calif. — Modest growth is forecast for California apple production this summer. While suppliers have no ambitions to rival Washington for sheer production volume, they intend to hold their market niche.

In 2010, that niche got a little crowded. Normally, the state’s apple crop fills a gap between winter and spring imports and the late-August onrush of Washington galas. But a cool California spring delayed its apple deal two to three weeks. Washington was on time, and New York and Michigan arrived early.

“A lot of domestic was in the pipeline, plus Chile,” said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission. “So California bumped right up against it.”

Growers seeking elbow room can eye the new production estimate — 2.5 million to 2.6 million cartons, up from 2.25 million last year — as a sign of better things to come. March weather was relatively cooperative, too — wet but not as cold.

Linden, Calif.-based Primavera Marketing is the largest supplier of California apples, about 1.4 million cartons. Sales manager Richard Sambado blamed imports for what he called the company’s worst-ever start to a season in 2010. This year, he’s trying to head off the problem.

“I’ve influenced my buyers not to buy imports,” Sambado said. “I got in front of them better because we got hurt so bad. Last year, the retailers had so much product from Chile.”

Sambado believes his words fell on receptive ears.

“There’s a shift in retail mindset,” he said. “I think they’ve ordered less prebooked volume from Chile and New Zealand. The fresh sliced guys have said they want to get out of import apples sooner.”

As Sambado sees it, apples toward the end of the Chilean run spent too long in storage.

Ott agreed there’s a new level of retail interest in California apples.

“We are starting to see a lot of the retailers trying to purchase fresh fruit locally grown,” he said. “If we could actually get Californians to eat California grown, we’d be out of apples.”

Though production is projected to be up, it’s still well below the 3.2 million carton level of two years ago. Beyond thorn-in-the-side weather and import issues, exports took a hit from the discovery since then of the light brown apple moth in California.

The moth wasn’t in producing areas, but the resulting quarantine and need to develop protocols torpedoed Mexican business. That country’s produce tariffs didn’t help, either. Exports there shrunk from 100,000 cartons to 17,000. It nudged back up to 36,000 in 2010, a trend that should continue as the issues move toward resolution, Ott said.

And California, the fifth-largest U.S. producer of apples, remains second only to Washington as an exporter. Main destinations are Canada, Malaysia, Taiwan and Mexico.

California apples vie with imports

Courtesy Primavera Marketing

Gala apples come down a Primavera Marketing line in Linden, Calif.