Washington Apple Growers Feeling Euphoric
Have you ever wondered what euphoria feels like? Try being an apple producer in Washington in the spring of 2013, especially if you had Honeycrisp to harvest. Per-box returns started at, and remain at, record high levels. Well, the euphoria is not universal; some had hail or late cherries to ratchet down their overall returns.
Still, it is difficult for even the most practiced and pessimistic of growers to say anything other than “Wow.” Last year’s early spring and late freezes decimated much of the crop in Michigan, Ontario, New York, and the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. That provided Washington shippers the opportunity to supply domestic markets inaccessible in the past, and greatly increase the usual amounts sent to our key foreign markets. A poor European crop decreased the pressure of imports into the U.S. I don’t really like the term “perfect storm,” but it sure fits here.
Adding to the euphoria, our 2012-2013 winter was mild but featured a reasonable amount of mountain snowfall to keep irrigation systems full this season. Spring has had a few dangerous dips and early cherries are whacked in the Yakima Valley, but return bloom was moderate and our standard crop load management programs should help us hit appropriate production levels with great quality at harvest and into storage. Fire blight threatened here and there without ever getting out of hand.
2013: An Even Bigger Year?
Therefore, are we prepared to exceed the 2012 crop of nearly 130 million boxes packed for fresh market? It is certainly a possibility. Plantings over the past several years are coming into full production. These are nearly all high-density, with appreciable commercial fruit by year three and often close to full production in year four. Full production now means hitting 1,500 packed boxes per acre (often much much more) on an annual basis.
Those yields have been enabled by better genetics, like M9 class rootstocks that permit high-density plantings, as well as progressive horticultural practices and ever more effective crop protection programs. Harvest and postharvest practices are now implemented on a block-by-block basis, with close attention to the physiological condition of fruit lots meant for short, mid, or long-term storage. Storage is ever more rigorous, with new controlled atmosphere rooms and state-of-the-art sorting and packing lines. SmartFresh still seems like a miracle, but one that keeps working, and Harvista is rapidly gaining a similar place in our toolbox.
High yields and packouts for cultivars like Gala and Red Delicious are not big news, but our ability to reduce biennial bearing has made a huge difference to sustained production levels. We have learned how to grow Fuji more consistently, and new strains like Aztec sure help.
The grand challenge of Honeycrisp seems less daunting, for once. Growers are figuring out the better sites, the right horticulture, and appropriate storage practices. We are not at 1,500 packed boxes per acre yet, but that day is not far off. Prices of more than $50 per box are a terrific incentive!
Although this is an extraordinary, perhaps once-in-a lifetime apple year, the previous few have been pretty good. Even as our total acres in production has decreased, per acre and total production have been rising, Nurseries are sold out again, booking orders two to three years in the future (hopefully on Geneva rootstocks), so even if this year’s moderate bloom seems to indicate we may not hit 130 million again, and we are a very long way from getting apples in the bin, based on recent orchard plantings, it seems clear: 100 million boxes is history.
Labor Will Be Critical
As long as Washington growers and shippers maintain a commitment to delivering quality, not just quantity, I do have hope our products will find a home. We need a healthy export market, freedom from food safety crises, and maybe most importantly, a way to harvest the crop and get it into storage.
That is, we still need labor, lots of it, and at the right time. We have barely escaped disaster the past few years in this regard. Although we have not left fruit hanging on the tree to a great extent, it has been close, and growers are growing older quicker trying to manage people at harvest and/or manage the challenges of the H-2A program.
As dour as I have been regarding the chances of a political solution to ag labor, I am hoping to be proven wrong and Congress will at last collectively addresses at least THIS issue. I have similar dour thoughts on the Farm Bill, and again, I am hoping to be proven wrong.
In the meantime, our interest in improving possible efficiencies at harvest though mechanization and automation continue. Commercialization of effective and affordable equipment based on augmentation of hand labor still seems a year or two away. New apple plantings in Washington are nearly all based on a fruiting wall architecture, either vertical or inclined, and thus more adaptable to engineering solutions.
In the past couple years, blocks have been left behind at harvest if potential returns were less than another block that was ready to go. This past season, if it even looked like an apple, it got picked, but this was an extraordinary season. We can get euphoric about returns and reinvestment at present, but the annual cycle continues. We will face increasingly difficult hand labor problems with or without immigration reform.
It has never been a better time to explore engineering solutions that fit our new high-density plantings. They are going in at present and they are our future. Building along the lines of the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, we are targeting completely automated harvest with renewed energy and effort, and will be working broadly with the ag and engineering research community to help us handle the coming challenge — harvesting more than 15 billion apples annually. It may take time, but, unlike our current Congress, I am optimistic we can get it done.