As the saying goes, “Out with the old and in with the new.” For many of us in the apple business, seeing this year off into the sunset cannot come quickly enough. It is no secret that 2019 has been a challenging year. The impact of trade disputes, coupled with a large apple harvest flooding the domestic marketplace, has left many growers filled with uncertainty about what the future holds. While I don’t want to sugarcoat what will likely be an upcoming year of continuing challenges, I am reminded of another phrase — this one often used by my mother — one that I find myself revisiting more and more: “There’s always sunshine after the storm.”
In my mind, one of the apple industry’s brightest silver linings is our young growers. While most segments of agriculture struggle with finding youth who want to remain on the family farm, or become first generation farmers, the apple industry doesn’t face this dilemma. Our young people want to be in the business. In an unpredictable economy with long hours and profits reliant on the whims of Mother Nature, young apple growers are full of enthusiasm for shepherding the industry into the future.
These young growers are eager to not only play pivotal roles in their apple businesses but to become leaders within the industry. They are excited to be involved in USApple’s Young Apple Leader program, to take on responsibility within the organization, and to grow within the industry. In fact, we’ve seen such overwhelming interest from our young leaders, we recently created a formal Young Apple Leader committee, which guides and recommends activities to build community and learning opportunities that are relevant to advancing young leaders in the industry.
Overwhelmingly, young growers are bringing fresh ideas and new technology to their orchards. I’m reminded of a quote from Pearl S. Buck, “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible, and achieve it.” While visiting these growers around the country, I’ve witnessed drones that help the grower scout for problems; real-time technology in the orchard that captures productivity, weather, and field conditions, shown on a wall of monitors in what we in Washington, D.C., refer to as a “situation room“; and new apple varieties being grafted on the trunks of older apple trees, to avoid ripping out the trunks when market demand for the older varieties declines.
The apple industry as a whole is implementing cutting edge technology throughout the production chain, including robotics in packinghouses that is making business operations more efficient while cutting down on errors. All of this represents positive implications for food safety, as robots must be able to identify pallets and containers with identifying markers for traceability. And while we can never completely eliminate the chance of a food safety occurrence happening, through today’s technology — only to get better — we are equipped with resources that can quickly recognize and pull tainted product.
Switching gears, we’ve seen many bright spots within the public policy arena on issues important to apple growers. Although we are not out of the woods with ongoing trade disputes that plagued the industry in 2019, I’m optimistic heading into 2020 we will see a reversal of fortune with some of our top markets. For example, we’re seeing renewed interest from China for our apples. An emerging market, and one the industry views as having significant growth potential, the U.S. apple industry finally achieved full access to China in 2015 only to be whacked with retaliatory tariffs earlier this year. In that short time, exports grew to 2.5 million boxes per year, making China our sixth largest export market. Significantly, China was willing to pay premium prices for our premium apples — an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day — so I am optimistic the market will come back to us.
Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this, Congress will have ratified the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA). And if that hasn’t yet happened, I’m optimistic the existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will remain in place. As far as apples are concerned, that’s just as good. The USMCA doesn’t capture anything new for apples that wasn’t already in NAFTA (one of the best deals ever negotiated for U.S. apples). Nonetheless, we realize the importance of the agreement and have been aggressively pushing for its passage.
CHANGES IN LABOR REFORM
Something else to cheer in the legislative arena is the recent introduction of bipartisan agriculture labor reform called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. This legislation will greatly benefit the U.S. apple industry, which relies heavily on foreign-born labor. Labor shortages are making it difficult for many growers to stay in business or expand their operations. If enacted, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act will stabilize the current agricultural workforce by creating a process for them to gain work authorization to continue working in agriculture. The bill also brings needed modernization and cost containment to the H-2A guestworker program. It would freeze 2020 wages at 2019 levels and cap annual increases to 3.25% after that. Overall, it is a positive step toward helping the apple industry overcome some of its labor challenges.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR EDUCATION
Another challenge I’m excited to see us address in 2020 is in the marketplace. The apple industry is unique in that we have numerous wonderful varieties to share with consumers — and much-anticipated new varieties being introduced in the coming year. But as an industry, we also have a responsibility to our consumers to educate them about the most basic attributes of our product, such as how does it taste?
Are we giving consumers the information they need to make an informed buying decision by selecting an apple matched to their taste palate? Or are they left confused about the difference between a ‘Fuji’ and a ‘Gala,’ or a ‘Pink Lady’ and a ‘Honeycrisp,’ only to end up buying what is on sale, or a different fruit altogether, instead of the apple variety they would most enjoy?
So, I leave you with this challenge: In 2020, let’s arm consumers with more information and resources about our product — not only the many health attributes of apples, but the unique taste profiles that accompany each variety. To me, to do otherwise will be a missed opportunity.
The apple industry has tremendous opportunities in the year ahead and well into the future, and I have never been more excited to be part of this amazing industry. While we’ve been dealt some challenges, they are nothing we haven’t seen before, nor anything we can’t overcome by pulling together as an industry and facing them as a united front.