(Aug. 30) CHICAGO — Apples sold for $1.50 each in the Fairmont Hotel lobby. Maybe U.S. apple growers won’t see returns quite that high for their crop this fall, but they still spoke optimistically when they met in that hotel Aug. 22-23 for the U.S. Apple Association’s 2002 Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference.

Spring frost in the East and Midwest has the industry looking at its smallest crop since 1988 and probable higher f.o.b. prices.

The U.S. Apple Association released an estimate of 213.32 million 42-pound boxes, down 7% from last year’s estimate. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the country’s apple crop at 219.18 million boxes.

The smaller crop and good quality should bode well for apple growers, said Larry Olsen of Olsen Bros., Prosser, Wash.

“We should not be shy about asking for a better price, a fair price,” he said.

Frost hit in the key apple-growing states of New York, which saw its U.S. apple estimate drop 33% to 16 million boxes this year, and Michigan, which saw its estimate fall 27% to 15.3 million boxes.

Overall, the East’s estimate was down 24% at 41.92 million boxes. The Midwest’s estimate was down 24% at 22.31 million boxes.

“I’m convinced better times are just around the corner for America’s apple growers,” said Jim Cranney, who resumed his post as vice president of the U.S. Apple Association after serving as interim president after the May departure of Kraig Naasz. Nancy Foster was just hired as president of the association.

Washington state saw an increase of 7% to 129.49 million boxes in its U.S. apple estimate. The state has taken out about 14,000 acres, with red delicious making up a majority of the reduction. The state has seen increases in other varieties, said Ed Kershaw of Kershaw Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash. Fuji volume is projected to increase 20%, and gala should be up 11.3%, he said.

Other apple-producing countries also reported smaller crops.

Mexico’s crop should be down from 16.3 million boxes last year to an estimated 13.7 million boxes this year, said Leighton Romney, chief executive officer of importer Paquime in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Mexico.

Canada’s crop looks to drop 10% to 23.9 million bushels, said Don Werden, sales coordinator for the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association, Simcoe, Ontario.

European Union apple production should drop from 394.6 million boxes in 2001 to an estimated 381.8 million boxes this year, said Jacques Vanoye, committee president for Interfel, Paris. The recent floods in Europe could affect the estimate, he said.