The volume of organic apples grown in Washington continues to increase rapidly. ( Courtesy Washington Fruit & Produce Co. )

There’s no slowing the growth of Washington’s organic apple category.

Organic apple production in the state is expected to increase 30% over last year, according to the Organic Produce Network.

And that should open up ample promotion opportunities.

As of the end of 2017, there were about 22,116 certified organic acres, according to a study by Washington State University.

That number could reach 25,600 to 26,600 certified acres in 2018.

Most organic grower-shippers in Washington anticipate significant increases in volume this season.

Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., expects to have a 10% increase as a result of new plantings converting to organic as well as some older orchards transitioning, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

Stemilt has offered organic apples since 1989 and has become a leader in the organic category, he said.

“It’s part of our long-term design.”

Nearly one-third of the company’s apples are organically grown.

He estimated that Stemilt accounts for 22% of the U.S. organic apple category.

Pepperl seemed especially excited about the company’s organic SweeTango crop, which he said is seven times larger than it was a year ago.

“Now we have the best apple in the world, and it’s organic,” Pepperl said.

Sage Fruit Co. LLC, Yakima, Wash., is boosting its organic production by 20% this year, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing.

About 15% to 20% of the company’s apple volume will be organic.

Sage Fruit shipped 100,000 cases of organic apples when it kicked off the program three years ago, he said.

Today, volume is many times that figure, and the numbers are expected to rise.

“We have a three-year plan to continue the growth,” Sinks said.

Organically speaking, the company came “late to the party,” Sinks said, and is growing quickly to catch up.

The expanding customer base comes from both mainstream customers and organic grocers increasing their organic orders, he said.

Organic apples are more difficult to grow than conventional ones, he said, “but it’s a necessity.”

Growers can get a premium for organic fruit, but the price gap between organic and conventional is narrowing, Sinks said.

Yakima-based Washington Fruit and Produce Co. launched a small organic apple program last year that will continue to grow, said Frank Davis, vice president of sales.

The company focuses on fuji, gala, granny smith and Honeycrisp varieties and offers organic fruit in bulk and in pouch bags.

Wenatchee-based CMI Orchards LLC, which markets the Daisy Girl Organics label, has organic versions of all the major varieties and has added some club varieties, like Ambrosia, Kanzi and Kiku, said Loren Foss, organic manager.

“We’ll have some significant volume increases, especially on the organic Ambrosia this year,” he said.

This will be the company’s first season with organic Envy and Smitten apples.

Organic volume should be up 67% from last year, the company said, as a result of acreage transitioning to organic and the addition of new growers.

Like Sinks, Foss said the premium price for organics is shrinking.

“There will still be a premium on organic,” he said, “but it will narrow significantly this year.”

Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, will continue to grow its organic acreage and plans to double organic acreage within 10 years, said Catherine Gipe-Stewart, communications manager.

Volume continues to grow as acreage transitions to organic, she said.

She expects to see the market rebound after an oversupply situation last year.

“Last year, we saw abnormally small fruit size, which created an oversupply in small-sized organic apples, creating the lower market,” she said.

“The good news in that situation is the industry was able to get more apples into consumer’s hands, which over time builds sales,” she said.

Gipe-Stewart said she is pleased with the quality of fruit this year’s crop will provide for consumers and with the normal sizing profile.

“We expect to see the market rebound,” she said.

Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash., has eliminated the less popular organic varieties, like red delicious and golden delicious, and focuses on varieties like gala, Honeycrisp, fuji, granny smith and Pink Lady, said Andy Tudor, vice president of business development.

“That’s what the consumer wants,” he said.

“There’s no reason to grow varieties that consumers don’t care for organically.”

Washington is a good place to grow organic apples, said Stemilt’s Pepperl.

There’s not a lot of rain to cause fungal problems, there’s not a big insect population and most areas have good irrigation, he said.

He estimated that 98% of the organic apples grown in the U.S. are grown in Washington.

 
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