Washington apple marketers have set weekly shipment records 16 times so far this sales season and growers are benefitting from higher average prices.
Industry representatives quickly add, however, that the fast pace is necessary to sell a record crop of an estimated 130 million boxes, 18 percent larger than the previous record year.
The task has been eased for this year because Eastern states suffered damaging spring frosts that crippled production in Michigan, New York and in eastern Canada, which allowed Washington to gain market share sooner. Exports also are tracking higher than in past years.
But the East’s and Midwest’s disadvantage last growing season likely won’t translate into Washington’s advantage again, creating a challenge for local growers to maintain profitability. As a result,the Washington State Apple Commission has decided to pump more money into export promotion to try to boost sales abroad next season.
“This year we are fortunate. People will get more healthy than they have been for a while and prepare for the future,” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House in Wenatchee, which tracks shipments and prices for its 2,000 grower members.
Peter Verbrugge, president of Sage Fruit Co., which markets for three warehouses, said the Washington industry was able to get an early start because of the shortages elsewhere.
“Overall, sales are pretty good and prices are pretty good with the Eastern crop being down. That helped us out early,” he said.
Through last week, the industry had shipped 81 million boxes of apples to domestic and export markets, a pace that is averaging about 3 million boxes per week. At this time last year, the industry had shipped 70 million boxes.
Kelly said average prices for the season for all varieties, grades and sizes are $25.65 per box, compared to $22.29 per box last marketing season, a 15 percent increase.
“We are definitely getting the pricing,” he said.
Prices have softened on Red Delicious and Fuji, both around $20 to $21 per box.
Honeycrisp continues to be extremely popular. Season average prices for the variety have been at $57 per box with few supplies left to be sold.
The successes in the domestic market are being repeated for exports.
Todd Fryhover, apple commission president, said exports are 6 percent above last year’s 36 million-box export level.
Part of the growth can be attributed to the frost-damaged crop in Canada. Exports to Canada, the second leading market for Washington apples after Mexico, are up 28.5 percent at 3.9 million boxes this year. Canada imported 5 million boxes last year.
Likewise, Mexico is buying more apples. Sales there are up 36 percent to 6.6 million boxes.
With continued large crops in the future and the domestic market taking an average of 73 million boxes per year, the export market provides opportunities to sell more fruit, Fryhover said.
“It is clear to us sitting here that the U.S. domestic market demand is relatively stable. Any big increases in production will have to be targeted to foreign markets,” he said.
To that end, the commission, made up of growers and marketing representatives, will commit an additional $500,000 to its existing $6 million budget next year. Much of the promotion budget includes federal funds under the Market Access Program that assists domestic producers market their products abroad.
One major possible market is China. Washington state has been unable to ship apples there since last August, when China raised concerns about diseases being introduced with the fruit.
Some fruit is reaching the mainland through Hong Kong, which is a 2 million-box market for Washington apples. But that channel has been closing.
Fryhover said China could be a 5 million-box market if the trade issue could be resolved.
Jim Archer, manager of Northwest Fruit Exporters, an industry group that works on foreign trade programs, said he has submitted a new request for access for Red and Golden Delicious apples as well as other varieties.
Archer said while pest and disease issues are being advanced by the Chinese as the reason for denying access, the underlying issue involves the United States not yet approving access for Chinese apples to the United States market.
“That is what is really behind the issue. It’s been going on for some time.”
Archer hopes the issue can be resolved in time for the 2013 harvest.
Meanwhile, marketers are looking to continue efforts to sell the 2012 crop.
“The quality is excellent,” said Mike Saunders, an owner of Apple King LLC, a Gleed growing and packing firm. “Quality is holding up well for all varieties. Movement has been good. We have a long way to go.”