YAKIMA, Wash. — While everyone tries to figure out what the next Honeycrisp apple will be, the Honeycrisp may be turning into the next gala apple.

Industry estimates put Washington’s Honeycrisp crop at about 3.6 million cartons for the fresh crop, up from about 2.8 million cartons last year. Acreage of Honeycrisp has exploded from 300 acres in 2001 to 9,098 acres in 2011, according to report from the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service. After virtually no acreage a decade ago, the Honeycrisp now ranks below only red delicious, gala, fuji, granny smith and golden delicious.

Consumer demand has driven growth of the variety. Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., said retail scan data shows Honeycrisp sales at retail grew 24% from Sept. 1 through April 30, compared to an increase of 7.4% for gala and a decline of 7.3% for red delicious.

The Honeycrisp estimate for this year could be a tad low, said Randy Steensma, president and export marketing director of Nuchief Sales Inc., Wenatchee. He said the state could exceed that estimate of 3.6 million cartons by a couple of hundred thousand boxes.

Growers have been grafting granny smith and other varieties to Honeycrisp. While sales of Honeycrisp tree sales are recorded by nurseries, it is harder to get a handle on how many trees have been grafted by growers on their own. The supply outlook for Honeycrisp will be in a state of flux for several years to come because the grafting of Honeycrisp to other varieties, he said.

Still, he said demand will far outstrip supply again this year.

“There is a lot of pent up demand for the first of the Honeycrisp,” he said.

Retailers are looking to promote them as soon as they can, Steensma said.

Oneonta Trading Corp. should feature about 15% more volume of Honeycrisp apples this season, said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee. While some marketers go as late as March, Marboe said Oneonata is usually done by January.

The Honeycrisp is a nationwide apple that will gain even more volume quickly.

“I don’t think we have seen what fast is,” Steensma said. He said there are so many young trees next year and every year for the next four years that the growth of the variety will be the talk of the industry.

“This variety is going to ramp up much faster than any other one around,” he said.

While galas have been growing methodically, he said Honeycrisp will soon gain ground.

“It is going to grow at such a rapid rate that it will be close to gala volume or something like it,” he said.

Steensma said Honeycrisp could reach 10 million cartons out of the state of Washington easily, not to mention other states that are also increasing output.

“It will be probably be 15 million or 20 million boxes nationwide, and probably in the next five or six years,” he said.

A survey released in August from the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service indicated that Honeycrisp non-bearing acreage is substantial. In fact, the survey showed that as of Jan. 1 this year, there were 3.1 million non-bearing Honeycrisp trees planted — or almost a quarter of all non-bearing apple trees in the state and second only to 4.3 million for fuji. The number of bearing Honeycrisp apple trees was rated at 3.8 million, ranking it behind gala (18.5 million), fuji (17.5 million), red delicious (13.4 million), granny smith (10.4 million) and golden delicious (4.8 million).

Young Honeycrisp trees produce fruit that peaks on 56s and 64s and 72s, but older trees settle down to produce fruit peaking on 88s, 80s and 100s, he said.

“With all the young blocks coming on, there is still a huge supply of 56s and 64s,” he said.

Steensma said the Honeycrisp target f.o.b. levels are in the $50-55 range for the extra fancy premium grade. Fruit that came out of controlled atmosphere storage as late as March reached prices as high as $60-70 per carton.

Wolter said Honeycrisp volume for Rainier is expected to grow 20% this year and she anticipates availability through the end of May.

Promotions for Honeycrisp are sought after by retailers, but perhaps the most challenging problem for shippers is balancing packing house time between varieties, Steensma said.

“It takes an industry to fill up some of these ads, especially galas,” he said.

“The demand for galas, when it gets rocking and rolling, is 600,00 to 700,000 cartons per weeks, which just a few of us could not cover.

“It takes a lot of packers to fill up the demand on so many varieties,” he said.

In late September and October, the industry trys to fill the pipeline with many varieties.

“There are so many hours in the day to pack so you tend to jump from variety to variety to variety and there is probably a lack of machine time,” Steensma said.