Lady Alice variety apples ripen up in Washington state for Rainier Fruit Co. ( Courtesy Rainier Fruit Co. )

The Washington apple crop will be somewhat smaller than expected this year, but despite some setbacks, grower-shippers say plenty of good-quality fruit should be available.

Figures released at the U.S. Apple Association’s Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference in late August indicate that the state’s 2018 production will be 155 million cartons — a drop of 10% from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August estimate of 171.4 million cartons.

RELATED: U.S. Apple estimate slides 6% below USDA numbers

Volume will be down 13% compared to last year and 5% below the five-year average.

As the harvest got underway this summer, growers were finding that there’s less fruit than they thought there was, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Wenatchee-based Washington Tree Fruit Association.

Some growers said they had a “‘canopy crop,’ where it was looking better than it actually was inside the tree,” he said.

Some fruit was mature on the outside but not inside.

“That could mean having to go through the orchard multiple times to harvest,” he said.

Fire blight also has made growing apples particularly challenging this year, said Catherine Gipe-Stewart, communications manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash.

“The weather, heat and rain all lined up during bloom in an unfavorable way to some of our orchards,” she said.

“Some blocks we were able to just cut off affected areas, while other orchard blocks took more damage and will need to be replanted,” she said.

The good news is, “We are seeing good size, sugars and color,” she said.

“It’s been probably the worst year for fire blight that growers have ever faced,” said Andy Tudor, vice president of business development for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.

“It’s been a big, big challenge,” he said. “Everybody is dealing with it.”

Smoky conditions resulting from fires in British Columbia could affect some early coloring, Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC, said in late August.

But there still was time for fruit to color up, he said.

Some growers said the haze helped keep temperatures down.

“So far, quality seems to be great,” Sinks said.

He expected volume at Sage Fruit to be up this year.

Volume at Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash., will be down a bit from last year because the company has some large alternate-bearing orchards, said Mac Riggan, director of marketing.

“But overall, the crop is a clean crop,” he said, and sizing is larger than last year, with more size 80s and 88s.

He was a bit concerned about a “considerable” increase in organic apples.

RELATED: Organic apple production up 30% in Washington

“That’s going to pose some challenges, but it may help grow organic demand,” he said.

Sometimes, a large volume of organic apples forces growers to “push them into the stores at prices you may not be crazy about.”

At the same time, it can make organic apples affordable to consumers who otherwise may not have tried them.

“If they find a value in it, next year, you’ve got a new customer,” Riggan said.

“That’s one way of increasing demand.”

Rainier Fruit Co. was on schedule picking conventional and organic gala and Honeycrisp apples in late August, Tudor said.

He expected the company to be harvesting all of its varieties except granny smith by mid-September.

The fruit looked good with higher than usual brix levels, he said.

“The gala quality looks outstanding,” he added.

Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers Inc. will have its first “truly marketable” crop of the Rave apple variety this season, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

And the company started harvesting its SweeTango crop in late August.

“The SweeTango is probably one of our nicest crops ever,” he said.

Harvesting got underway seven to 10 days earlier than last year, when picking started a little later than usual, he said.

“We’re more aligned with where we should be,” he said, if not a little early.

 
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