YAKIMA, Wash. — Grower-shippers continue to invest in expanding their organic apple programs, and the segment is expected to account for 10% of the crop this season.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association projects 13.1 million boxes of organic apples, up more than 20% from 2016-17.

“You have to have organics to be successful, and you have to have them in volume,” said Chuck Zeutenhorst, general manager for FirstFruits Marketing of Washington.

Organic apples make up about 20% of the overall crop at FirstFruits, a major increase from a few years ago, but the company is not rushing to transition more acreage.

“We’ve slowed that down some, just because we were concerned about what we saw coming,” Zeutenhorst said.

Companies are well aware that, when the rapidly growing supply eventually catches up with demand, prices will reflect the change.

“We actually thought by now we would be bumping into more of a saturation point in organic apples, but that really hasn’t happened yet,” Zeutenhorst said. “Organic apples still have a great following.

“There’s some real serious increases in organic production statewide coming — serious increases,” Zeutenhorst said. “At some point in time we’re going to see a diminishing return, but right now it’s been very, very good.”

Mainstream varieties like gala, fuji, granny smith, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady account for much of the growth in organic volume, according to numerous grower-shippers.

Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Sage Fruit Co., said the company will have about 13 times the volume of organic apples it did last season.

“We’ve been transitioning for a while and everything’s coming to fruition this crop season,” Sinks said.

Chelan-based Chelan Fresh expected to have more than 1 million boxes of organic apples, up from 400,000 in 2016-17, said director of marketing Mac Riggan.

The company aims to have 2 million or 2.5 million boxes in the next three years.

Steve Lutz, senior strategist at Wenatchee-based CMI Orchards, said organic apple volume for CMI is up about 15% again this season after a 65% increase in 2016-17.

“Over the last several years, growth at retail in conventional apple sales has been almost non-existent,” Lutz said, citing Nielsen data. “Nearly all of the dollar growth in the category has been generated by organic apples. As our production increases, more retailers will expand their organic varietal mix and increase shelf space.

“Every time a consumer switches to buying organic instead of conventional apples it drives dollars up because of the higher price point on organic fruit,” Lutz said.

Randy Abhold, executive vice president of sales and business development for Selah-based Rainier Fruit, said the company will be up 10% to 15% on organics.

Stemilt Growers and Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, both based in Wenatchee, also reported growing organic volumes. At Stemilt, organic accounts for about 30% of the crop.

Randy Steensma, president of Wenatchee-based Honey Bear Tree Fruit Co., noted that organic is a buzzword with retailers, but he expressed concern about how long sufficiently high retail prices will last.

“I think the organic production is going to go up probably 30% per year for the next 2-3 years, so we’ll have a 100% increase on organics,” Steensma said.

“Not too many industries can absorb that kind of growth, so it’ll put pressure on pricing, I’m afraid.” 

“I hope not, but you look at the numbers and it’s a sobering number how many organic orchards are coming into production,” Steensma said. “If the industry can absorb it, the retailers, that’s fine, but if the pricing gets a little tough, then the grower ... he’ll regret it.”

In general, foodservice has been more reluctant than retail to embrace organic produce, but Randy Hartmann, president of Bellevue-based Pacific Pro, has noticed some changes happening.

“We are seeing some growing organic demand from our foodservice customers, and it’s good because it corresponds with what we’re seeing on the grower side,” Hartmann said. “A lot of them are increasing their organic production significantly on a lot of the major varieties.”