Despite the economy and a big, lingering storage crop in Washington, grower-shippers and industry officials expect strong demand for Eastern apples this fall.

Demand for fresh New York apples is so strong, processing varieties are continually being replaced with trees slated for the fresh market, a trend that started about five years ago, said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.

“The split used to be 55% processing, 45% fresh. Now it’s the opposite,” Gregg said.

This year, large New York fruit could be particularly appealing to retailers and consumers who have seen their share of smaller Washington fruit this summer, Gregg said.

Fowler Bros. expects to ship a wider variety of sizes this year, a change from last year, when fruit was on the big side, Peters said.

However, that is nothing to be sorry about, he said.

“We like the mix (of sizes),” Peters said. “We have customers who want a little bit of everything.”

Given the economy, for instance, there’s plenty of demand for small apples sold in bags, he said.

The big storage crop left over from Washington’s 2008-09 season does not concern Peters, who thinks that demand should be strong for the new Eastern crops.

“We don’t tend to worry too much about what’s happening around us,” he said. “We’re bringing a fresh new crop that has value.”

Besides, Peters said, the biggest leftover variety for Washington is red delicious, and Fowler Bros. won’t start shipping reds until October.

“There’s plenty of room in the marketplace,” he said.

The success of earlier New York crops should bode well for the apple crop, said Mark Nicholson, executive vice president of Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, N.Y.

“If the stone fruits are any indication on flavor, it should be an excellent-tasting crop,” he said.

The prices Eastern growers get at the beginning of the deal will depend largely on their comrades at the other end of the country, said John Teeple of Teeple Farms Inc., Wolcott, N.Y.

“I think normally things start out strong, but it depends on what Washington does with its leftover crop,” he said. “The carryover form Washington will definitely affect the starting price, but if it’s marketed well, it should be a good year.”

Peter Forrence, vice president of Forrence Orchards Inc., Peru, N.Y., is hopeful but also wary heading into the 2009-10 season.

And it’s not Washington’s lingering storage crop that has Forrence most worried.

“There’s a lot of concern,” he said. “The driving concern is the state of the economy more than anything else.”

On the other hand, East Coast growers actually could benefit at the beginning of the deal if demand is lower than it was last year at the start of the deal, Forrence said.

“Last year started at $2-3 a pound, which was too high,” he said. “There could be a better starting price (this year).”

With New York and Pennsylvania volumes expected to be similar to last year, and a bumper crop expected out of Michigan, John Rice, president of Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa., said export markets could be a more attractive option this year for Eastern shippers looking to move extra fruit.

However, the leftover apples from Washington won’t likely have as big an effect on demand as some first feared, Rice said.

“They say it’s ending in surprisingly good shape,” Rice said in early August. “The only big carryover is on granny smiths. It shouldn’t affect our business very much.”

The few granny smiths Rice Fruit grows go to processing, Rice said.

Rice reported good demand for his ginger golds at the beginning of the new-crop deal.

One thing to watch this season, Rice said, is whether retail prices will drop, mirroring the anticipated drop in f.o.b. prices compared to past years at the same time.

While f.o.b.s fell considerably in the first few months of 2009, retail prices did not, Rice said — not that consumers seemed to mind too much.

“The fact that they sold well at retail was encouraging,” he said.

But that disconnect between the price growers receive and the price retailers receive won’t likely last, Rice said.

“I think we’ll see f.o.b.s that will be lower than last year, at more traditional levels, and hopefully that will bring retail prices down,” he said. If that happens, the industry should be “in a good position to see good movement through fall on apples.”

Three-pound bags for less than $3 should be a winner in supermarkets this year, Rice said.

“At under $1 a pound, I think they’ll sell very well,” he said. “Apples are still a good value.”