(Nov. 16) An empty pipeline going into the fresh deal and hail damage in the Northwest have put a dent in the U.S. apple crop, according to the first storage report of the season from the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association.

Lower volumes could mean a strain on supplies in 2007, with Chile and New Zealand potentially supplying more apples to the U.S. market than usual.

As of Nov. 1, apple holdings stood at about 99 million bushels, 2% fewer than a year ago and 9% fewer than in 2004, according to the report, released Nov. 14.

Controlled-atmosphere holdings were down even more. Fresh controlled-atmosphere holdings at the beginning of the month were 74 million bushels, 7% below 2005 and 11% below 2004.

The lower overall numbers were driven by shortages in the Northwest, where hail and other erratic weather plagued the crop throughout the summer. Northwest holdings were 79 million bushels, 4% below last year and 10% below 2004.

While Washington should have enough reds and fujis to supply demand until next fall’s harvest, grower-shippers may need to pull other varieties from South America and New Zealand next summer, said Charlie Pomianek, manager of the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, Wenatchee. Goldens in particular will be short — Washington’s golden crop is projected to be down 40% this year, he said.

But for at least the next several months, suppliers should have no trouble meeting customers’ demands.

“We should have a pretty orderly season,” Pomianek said Nov. 15. “As of last week’s shipments, we’re pretty much right on target.”

Despite the drop, Peter Fitzgerald, produce director for Sunset Food Mart, Highland Park, Ill., said his produce managers had no plans to change the size of their displays or the frequency of promotions.

“We’ll just keep promoting apples throughout the winter, and in the spring, when we start running out, the South American and New Zealand deals usually kick in,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to sell what you’ve got.”

All other regions, meanwhile, have shown gains in 2006, according to the association. Fresh holdings in the Northeast were 10 million bushels, 4% more than in 2005 and 2% above the five-year average.

New York growers should have enough apples to meet record demand this year, said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the New York Apple Association, Fishers.

“Fortunately, we had a good crop, quantity- and qualitywise,” he said. “We’re looking at our best marketing year maybe ever. Movement has been phenomenal.”

Holdings were up 6% in the Midwest, 20% in the Southeast and 9% in the Southwest.

The lower volumes are certainly being felt in the marketplace, said Bob Mast, marketing director for Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee, Wash.

“Prices are holding pretty strong this year,” Mast said. “The crop size is down and consumption is up. We’re definitely seeing a stronger market this year.”

Mast anticipated high demand for imported apples in the coming months to supplement the smaller crop and feed higher consumer demand.

“One of our goals is to keep apples out there year-round, but it’s going to be somewhat of a challenge this year,” he said. “Markets could strengthen even more.”