Red delicious bin ( Washington Apple Commission )

Washington state just east of the Cascades is a prime place for growing apples: It’s sunny, dry, and there aren’t a lot of hosts for pests and fungus. 

So it’s no surprise the area grows roughly two times more apples than Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania combined, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

2018 has been no exception. The U.S. Apple Association reported that Washington state apple fresh market holdings on Dec. 1 totaled 87.6 million bushels, or about 85% of remaining U.S. fresh supplies of 103.3 million bushels.

Market conditions in late December showed strong prices for most varieties.

Size 80 Washington granny smith apples were trading from $32 to $36 per carton on Dec. 27, about the same as $34 to $38 per carton reported at same time reported a year ago.

Gala 80 count fruit was trading from $25 to $30 per carton on Dec. 27, up from $24 to 28 per carton the same time last year.

Honeycrisp were priced at $44 to $50 per carton on Dec. 27, similar to $46 to $54 per carton the same time a year ago.

The harvest that started in August and finished in November is “hopefully sold out prior to the next season,” Fryhover said.

The northwestern state is a year-round supplier for red delicious, golden delicious, granny smith, fuji and gala. Organic and new varieties such as Honeycrisp are increasing in volume and available most of the year too, he said.

Still, the 2018 harvest supply dropped compared to last season.

Washington had a smaller crop by 14% than the previous year, Fryhover said. Sales at the beginning of season have gone well, keeping pace with supplies.

Shipping is 28% down on the export side, likely in connection with retaliatory tariffs imposed on Mexican and Chinese markets, Washington’s largest export markets, he said. 

For instance, Section 232 and 301-related tariffs, plus a base 10% duty tax, means an overall 50% duty for apples shipped to China, Fryhover said. 

The state represents more than 90% of all apple exports from the U.S., so these growers feel the most effect by changes in international trade rules.

But there’s a silver lining.

“A reduced Washington apple crop couldn’t have occurred at a better time with the trade issues,” Fryhover said. “So, thank goodness we didn’t have a larger crop volume!”

The commission provided Washington’s fresh-apple-production numbers, excluding processed apples, to show the dip:

  • 2018: 117.8 million;
  • 2017-2016: both in the 133-134 million range; and
  • 2014: just over 142 million, the largest crop in recent history.

For Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Wash., the season started seven to 10 days earlier than last year, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Stemilt, which packs nearly 29 million boxes of fruit a year.

Quality for controlled atmosphere storage rooms looks good with the company’s best apples yet to be packed this season, Pepperl said in late December.

“It was a great harvest with little rain this season and an earlier start to harvest. Only the very late fuji and Pink Lady crop got any rain on the crop,” Pepperl said.

The company planted more Honeycrisp, Rave and SweeTango, all premium apples. 

Stemilt started shipping Aug. 1 with Rave, which is the earliest apple in the state, if not the U.S., Pepperl said. On Dec. 20, Stemilt was in full packing mode on all varieties left to ship.

“Freight is a monster with East Coast rates from Washington reaching historic highs,” Pepperl said. “Labor is always an issue we deal with, [but] smaller crops seem to be helping the labor pool from getting exceeded.”

Both early season and late season club apples are moving well and are expected to win big in the future, while fuji, gala and granny smith are all steady with some limited growth.

“Apples are larger this year too, which increases movement even more,” Pepperl said.

The apples on the way out are jonagold, golden delicious and red delicious, he said. Declining to use specific variety names, Pepperl said some of the industry’s trademark apples are struggling and will not make it because of economics and taste.

The company is poised to push through the coming season with more efficiency than ever.

Stemilt’s new 500,000-square-foot distribution center opened in the summer of 2018 and is in full swing now, with pallets reaching 8 feet high in a dark environment with robotic selection equipment.

“It’s an incredible advantage long-term, with shipping,” Pepperl said.