As summer approaches, consumers begin to turn to local markets for the parade of fresh fruit, and apple orchards are buzzing with preparations for the late summer harvest.
Last year, 122 million bushels were harvested in Washington, the national leader in apple production.
It was a moderate harvest compared to past years which have seen totals in the 130 million range.
“A lot of it was related to the heat we had in June (2021),” said Todd Fryhover of the Washington Apple Commission, referring to the heat dome that took hold in the area.
Compare that with this spring of 2022, which saw snow in mid-April.
“It hasn’t been too cold, but it certainly doesn’t take much to affect our crops,” he said. “We’re probably looking at a similar sized crop (for 2022), depending on what happens with the pollination weather.”
As the timeline shifted to 2022, it was clear the apple industry was seeing signs of improvement in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although working conditions are largely what they were before the pandemic, adjusting to social distancing measures has been a major hurdle.
About 30,000 foreign workers come to Washington each year under the federal H-2A program to work in agriculture. This visa program allows farmers to recruit and hire from other countries to perform work on a seasonal basis.
“This fruit is not going to pick itself. Each apple is picked by hand. … We have to do whatever we have to do to take care of the workforce; whether it means building more housing, buying more buses, or paying higher wages, we have already committed to that fruit,” he said.
Fortunately for the industry, Fryhover said, “It doesn’t look like Covid will have as much of an impact as it did at this time last year. We will continue to prioritize the safety and health of our workers.”
However, as the world continues to shake the economic toll of the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the latest pandemic-induced lockdowns in China and other ongoing supply chain disruptions, challenges clearly remain for Washington’s apple growers.
Washington apples are enjoyed in 23 other countries around the world.
Fryhover said the state exports 30% of the apples, pears and other fruits it produces. Of the fruit that stays in the United States, only 3% stays in Washington.
Getting the fruit overseas poses logistical challenges, as shipping is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry this season.
“We still have ships at anchor along the west and east coasts, more ships off the coast of China… If you load a container and it’s not picked up or waits two to three weeks, we’re dealing with a perishable commodity,” Fryhover said.
Financial risk escalates with rising shipping and other costs.
Fryhover said the system is strained even in the United States, as freight rates to Florida used to be $8,000 and are now $15,000. “You know what it’s like to try to pass it on to your client,” he said.
“The third blow is the cost of your inputs. Fertilizer and packaging expenses increase, then inflationary pressure by 7-8%. All of these things impact the producer and the price elasticity can only expand so far,” he said.
The industry is also still grappling with retaliatory tariffs that add another 20% to the usual 50% in China and India. The tariffs were introduced during the tenure of former President Donald Trump in response to tariffs he imposed on aluminum and steel from these countries.
Fryhover said he doesn’t see that changing under the Biden administration.
The European Union and its neighboring countries in Eastern Europe constitute the second largest apple production area in the world. With a damper on imports from Washington, other countries are stepping in to deliver. Fryhover said apple orchards are also on the rise in India.
“In the great state of Washington, we do such a good job on fruit trees that we can compete on quality with anyone in the world…but we can’t compete on price,” did he declare.
Back on the home front
Fryhover said this season will emphasize the importance of the domestic market, which consists of 500 million consumers in the United States, Canada and Mexico – 20% of US apple exports go to Canada and Mexico. Mexico.
On the home front, the industry has adapted over the past two years to changes in buying habits.
As stores refined mobile shopping options to allow curbside pickup and delivery and people began to make fewer, shorter trips to stores, packers began putting apples in bags of uniform weight.
“The industry is so resilient,” Fryhover said. “Our packaging lines are set up to do commercial packaging, not bags, so we really had to come up with creative methodologies to put more fruit in the bags for national retail. Some were able to buy bag machines, others do it with labor.
Even though mask mandates have been lifted across the country and the pace of life has largely returned to normal, Fryhover said bagging is here to stay and will likely even increase over time.
“Shrinkage is zero,” he said, referring to the retail theft rate. “Brands can use high-resolution graphics. The message is on the bag and so they can promote themselves further.
The commission and the Washington apple industry continue to promote the exclusive Cosmic Crisp variety, developed by Washington State University. The sweet and juicy variety is licensed to be grown in Washington for the first 10 years of its patent.
Fryhover said one of the industry’s goals is to find new markets for Cosmic Crisp.
“We are focusing our efforts primarily in California,” he said.
He said Cosmic Crisp is best promoted using product samples distributed to retailers, which have ceased for most of the pandemic.
“It’s starting to come back, but that’s been one of our main challenges,” he said.
Overall, its outlook for this growing season is optimistic.
“We just have to take the challenges we face and turn them into opportunities,” he said.