By CHERYL SCHWEIZER
Crop estimated at about 117 million boxes for 2018
WENATCHEE — With a smaller crop than projected and high-quality fruit, 2018 is turning out to be a pretty good year for apples.
The 2018 apple crop currently is estimated at 117.8 million boxes. (For those who don’t spend a lot of time in the orchard, a box holds 40 pounds of apples.) The August crop forecast was 131 million boxes.
Tim Kovis, communications manager for the Washington Tree Fruit Association, said the estimate comes from grower reports. But growers were “picking light” (less than the estimate) when apples actually started coming off the trees, Kovis said.
Fruit quality was pretty darn good. “Size is big, condition is excellent, color is excellent,” said Steve Castleman, vice-president of sales at CMI Orchards, Wenatchee. Growers are “very happy” with fruit quality and storability.
In apple country, storage matters because, given the right conditions, apples will still be edible up to year after harvest. Improving fruit longevity has been an effort stretching back decades. Growers have done the “research and trial and error” to come as close as they can to an optimal storage environment, Kovis said.
In her job as tree fruit specialist for WSU-Grant/Adams Extension, Karen Lewis talks to a lot of growers. Her contacts said the fruit was picture-perfect. “The fruit was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “I don’t know any (variety) that didn’t do well, as far as fruit finish.” In terms of condition when the fruit comes off the tree, “this is everything this apple is supposed to look like.” Part of the credit for that belongs to - of all things - the thick layer of smoke that blanketed central Washington late in the summer. The smoke filtered the sunlight, reducing possible sun damage. (Apples too can get sunburn.)
Orchardists have started installing canopy systems that do the same thing, Lewis said. The smoke did the work for free - while at the same time making it harder to do business, she said. In some orchards work had to be postponed until the smoke cleared.
Labor is a perennial concern during harvest season, from the time cherries are ready in June to the time the last apples come off the trees in November. At least during apple harvest labor worked out pretty well. Lewis said there was an adequate labor supply; it helped that the crop was smaller than anticipated, and so was California’s, meaning more workers were coming to Washington. More H2A visas are being used as well. The cost of labor, however, is still a concern, Lewis said.
Marketers expected the apple crop to be bigger and wrote some early-season contracts to reflect that expectation, Kovis said. Contracts will be adjusted to take into account the actual size of the crop.
Spot prices released Dec. 17 showed moderate demand for most varieties. Depending on fruit size, Honeycrisp, considered a premium variety, mostly were bringing $40 to $50 per box. Washington now produces more Gala than any other variety, and the Dec. 17 prices for Gala were $20 to $25 per box.
There was a time when Red Delicious dominated state production. “It was the king for decades and decades,” Kovis said. While production has slipped Reds have become an important export crop. Prices were mostly $17 to $23 on Dec. 17.