YAKIMA, Wash. — The productivity and profitability of Washington apple growers and marketers in recent years could be their biggest challenge in the next five to 10 years.
Washington leaders expect a manageable fresh crop of near 120 million cartons for 2013 but many believe the fresh crop could top 150 million cartons in coming years.
Apple trees that were recently planted and nonbearing accounted for 15% of the total trees planted in Washington state in 2011, according to a Washington Agricultural Statistics Service report. The percentage of young, nonbearing trees accounted for 45% of Honeycrisp acreage and 20% for fuji, signaling the output those varieties will rise faster than the overall average.
The track record of Washington state indicates the challenge can be met.
In 1975, 40 million cartons for the fresh crop was the norm. Now industry leaders say industry can successfully market 130 million. The range of apple varieties has increased and is more tuned to consumer demand, marketers believe.
The market share of apple varieties will continue to shift in the years ahead, said Mike Nicholson, salesman for Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee. Galas will ascend to the highest volume crop in the next decade. Red and golden delicious will fade.
“What is being planted most heavily is high-color galas, high-colored fujis and Honeycrisp,” he said.
Planting will continues as long as there is liquidity.
“We will be looking at 150 million and 160 million box crops within three or four years,” said Randy Steensma, president of Honey Bear Tree Fruit Co., Wenatchee.
Promise and peril
The rise of the fresh-cut apple industry has spurred greater consumption, and the healthy eating trend has generally helped the apple category, said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Trading, Wenatchee. He said planning of promotions between marketers and retailers has never been more precise, he said.
Even with the great success of marketers moving the fruit and the high demand for newer varieties, the industry faces challenges of continued need to expand domestic and export demand, finding labor to harvest the expanding apple volume and meeting increased food safety regulations, grower-shippers say.
Pending U.S. demands for food safety information on how imported crops are grown could be copied by other countries and make exporting more expensive, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.
Given all those forces, the industry will evolve to meet the challenges, said John Long, director of sales and operations in Union Gap, Wash., for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos.