Significant consumer and varietal shifts have been noted by the Washington State Apple Commission as the region prepares for what could be the most productive season on record.
Excellent spring weather and orchard replacements are two of the key reasons the state predicts this year will top the 2012 bumper harvest of around 128 million cartons.
“We have a very nice crop of fruit on the trees, we have a very even crop load, the fruit sizing is coming along fantastically and the fruit quality looks to be really good. So we’re anticipating an excellent quality crop,” Washington State Apple Commission president Todd Fryhover told www.freshfruitportal.com.
“In addition we have been taking out old orchards and putting in new orchards and upgrading our facilities for a number of years now, and this season could bring a historical high for Washington as far as crop volumes go.”
Fryhover added the increase wasn’t necessarily because of increased acreage, but rather an improved efficiency at the orchard level.
The high anticipated fruit quality throughout the state is large attributed to an unusually consistent and even crop set in almost all growing regions.
“Typically horticultural crops alternate bear, but this year one thing that I noticed is that there’s a very even crop of fruit. It’s not heavy, it’s not light…it’s fairly consistent from the north all the way down to the southern growing areas,” Fryhover said.
“So that in itself doesn’t put the tree under a lot of stress. It provides the opportunity to have a nice even growing season, and that’s what really brings on a beautiful quality crop is fruit is that even volume of fruit on the trees.”
Fryhover said he had also noticed certain less traditional Washington State varieties like Cripps Pink, Honeycrisp and Gala, gaining rapid momentum in the domestic market.
“Honeycrisp volume is incrementally going up because it’s just one more quiver in your varietal market basket. But Honeycrisp is probably growing on percentage the fastest,” he said.
“Gala is also growing very quickly and a lot of that also has to do with new varieties that are coming on board that have higher color and better taste profiles.
“So you may see a Gala block of older Galas come out and be replaced by a newer strain of Galas that just have more and better characteristics for consumers.”
He added that as these varieties became more popular with U.S. consumers, other more established cultivars were taking a back seat, such as Red and Golden Delicious.
“Red Delicious is going more towards the export market and we’re very positive on that because if we look around the world nobody grows Red Delicious like Washington does,” he said.
“And we’re seeing the Golden Delicious volume in general drop off as an industry – the reason primary for that is the Honeycrisp and the Gala are replacing it.”
Fryhover attributed this new trend to consumers’ changing tastes and preferences rather than variances in quality between any of the cultivars.
“I think they’re looking for a different eating experience, whether that’s a sweet apple, a tart apple, a very, very firm apple, they’re just moving away from those Golden Delicious characteristics into newer characteristics that are being provided from Washington apple growers,” he said.
Traditionally Washington exports 32-34% of its total production into some 60 international markets.
Fryhoover said while all export markets were important and each one played a key role in the state’s strategy, Mexico and Canada receive the largest volume due to their proximity.
China on the horizon
The Washington State Apple Commission representative said the U.S. and Chinese apple industries have both been requesting full varietal access into each others markets for up to around two decades now.
Apples from Washington State were banned from entering China in the spring of 2013, but now that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering allowing apple imports from the Asian country, it is hoped the favor will be returned.
“We feel that there is a tremendous opportunity for Washington if China were to open for full varietal access at the same time as China gaining access to the U.S. market,” Fryhover said.
“That’s the crucial factor, these two things need to happen exactly simultaneously or there will be no success for either party.”
He added the discussions were progressing, but both countries seemed reluctant to make the first move and were holding their cards close to their chest.
“The priority of the whole industry is working out exactly what the outcome is going to be in the near-term so we need to be optimistic, but cautiously optimist,” Fryhover said.