Big crop is good timing for Washington apple marketers

05/29/2012 09:03:00 AM
Tom Karst

Washington apple marketers are poised to fill major supply gaps in the East and Midwest this fall with what is expected to be a record crop.

Unoffically weighing in at nearly 120 million cartons — more than 10 million cartons larger than the previous record — the crop will result in shifting promotions as retailers balance much smaller New York and Michigan crops, the perennial second- and third-largest producers, respectively.

Steve LutzMarketers with apples should be in good shape in the 2012-13 season, said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of Nielsen Perishables Group, which analyzes retail sales numbers.

But overall U.S. apple sales could suffer because of the shortfall in some regions, Lutz said.

Higher prices expected at retail and a change in the mix of varieties will result in some consumers who will search out substitutes for apples, he said.

“Western producers are going to have to work really hard to get those promotions shifted to Western apples and not lose those promotions to grapes or berries or pears or some other variety,” Lutz said.

Washington’s bumper crop

Washington shippers should “make out like bandits” with the apple shortage in the East and Midwest, said Barry Winkel, general manager of Greg Orchards & Produce Inc., Benton Harbor, Mich.

“Hopefully somebody profits from this,” Winkel said.

The current Washington fresh apple crop (2011-12) is projected at 107.5 million cartons, the third-largest ever behind the 109 million-carton crop of 2010, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House.

Kelly said the official production estimate for the 2012-13 crop will be released in August.

How much labor is available to pick the crop could determine how big the crop ends up being.

“To go from 107 to 120 is a huge jump,” he said. “To get enough people to pick 120 is going to be a challenge,” he said. Storage space for a crop that big could also be a concern, Kelly said.

Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima, said the first apples from Washington are expected to be harvested in mid-August.

Washington typically supplies about 60% of the nation’s fresh apple crop and the percentage is likely to climb in the 2012 season, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee.

While Washington’s top shipment months are typically February, March and April, Pepperl said Washington apple shipments could make a bigger effect before Christmas.

“We have already talked to our partners about how we can supplement or have an alternate (promotion) plan so they don’t lose category sales,” he said.

Pepperl predicts more bulk sales of size 88s and larger Washington apples before Christmas, which he said will result in sales increases for retailers.

Randy Steensma, president and export marketing director of Nuchief Sales Inc., Wenatchee, predicts a big increase in fujis, galas and Honeycrisp, with granny smith also expected to climb some. Honeycrisp volume could climb from about 3.8 million cartons to more than 5 million cartons, he said.

Hail, freeze damage

Michigan and Ontario have reported crop losses of 50% or more, and industry sources said western New York’s apple country have also been hard hit.

Southwest Michigan may not have much more than 5% of a normal apple fruit crop, Winkel said.

“It’s gone,” he said May 23. “You won’t crank up storages because there won’t be anything to store.”

The region typically grows about 15% of the state’s apple crop. Shippers in other regions of the state declined to provide an estimate of losses until later in the growing season.

Not all growing areas in the Midwest and East were as badly damaged by late April freezes. New York’s Hudson Valley and the Champlain Valley, New England and the mid-Atlantic still expect good crops.

Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association, said he could not give a loss figure from low temperatures this spring.

“We have such a variation in crop and crop set across the state,” he said. Even areas that were hard hit with frost show more promise than two weeks ago, he said.

In the mid-Atlantic region, one large marketer said crop prospects were good.

“We have a very nice crop of apple on the trees,” said Brenda Briggs, vice president of marketing for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.



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