U.S. Apple exports see major changes
Washington’s apple exports are significantly down compared to pre-Covid years, according to Briana Shales, marketing director, for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, WA. “I would say the climate in export has changed,” she expressed to FreshFruitPortal.com in mid-December. For an example, the industry shipped large apple volumes to India. Now, tariffs prevent those volumes and generally, international markets have declined.
The good news for Stemilt and other Washington shippers is that a significant amount of apples and pears are being exported to Mexico.
“It’s just part of the changing global supply and climate and you know a lot of people in our export world would say that’s what it is now. In ten years, it might be different,” Shales observes.
A Dec. 18 press release from the Washington Apple Commission confirms this position. As of that date, 5,348,000 cartons were shipped to export markets. A year ago, to the date, for the 2021-22 season 7,580,000 cartons had been exported. This is a decline of 29 percent.
It's important to remember that we had a late start to the season and that comparing exports to domestic shipments needs to be done lightly.
Immediate industry circumstances didn’t bring a huge national apple crop to export, anyway.
Shales indicates the Washington state crop is the smallest since 2005, with less than 100 million boxes. Normal Washington apple crops are greater than 120 million.
From his office in Sparta, MI, Scott Swindeman, co-owner of Applewood Fresh Growers LLC, affirms the strong Michigan crop. Coming into 2022, Michigan apple growers had not enjoyed a good crop for two or three years. But new trees planted in recent years continued growing in Michigan throughout the down crops. Thus, when strong production conditions finally occurred in 2022, new bearing surface on young trees increased production by as much as 150% or 200% over what it would have been several years ago.
In other really good news, “This Michigan crop is high quality, with excellent color and condition. It’s a great eating experience.”
Swindeman expects to be shipping apples from controlled atmosphere storages until the 2023 crop harvest begins.
For Washington State growers, their low volume “is a big deal,” Shales says. “There is short supply, high demand and obviously there are regional supplies. I think both Michigan and New York both have pretty decent crops so it’s really about how we can stay in as long as we can and take advantage of different varieties that have grown in production.”
Stemilt is running more domestic promotions with specialty varieties, starting with Cosmic Crisp. “We help retailers do the best they can with the varieties that are on a tighter supply.”
In the broad scheme, apple growers across the country are dealing with many great new varieties in the market. Swindeman remarks that optimistic and forward-thinking apple growers invested generously to assure a spot in what once seemed a promising future in premium apple varieties. Now those varieties, regardless of their undeniable strengths are collectively routine.
“It’s crowded out there in produce in general,” Shales observes. “I think that we have to fit a need for the consumer and the retailer and so those are the things to make sure before they come on scene that they’re going to have a home. And then also a lot of hard work to continue that in promotion and getting it in front of people and making sure they have a good experience.”
Another Covid impact
For apple grower-shippers, the global Coronavirus pandemic not only disrupted international trade.
Swindeman says production labor costs have skyrocketed. “During and since the Covid outbreak, whatever domestic labor might have been available has lost interest in working. When Covid hit, all the workers in the U.S. vaporized. It’s like they all disappeared. During Covid, the government did a great job of getting everyone to stay home. Now, they still are.”
While the national H-2A immigrant labor program is very expensive, Applewood couldn’t have stayed in business without that labor resource. Very few growers in the U.S. would have stayed in business, Swindeman adds.
“We can’t afford not to have the H-2A workers. But we can’t afford to have them.” But he credits that work force with being “good people and good, hard workers.” This workforce is primarily used for picking but in some cases, they also work in pack houses.