All eyes are fixed on the weather in Washington! According to Rebecca Lyons, International Marketing Director at the Washington Apple Commission, if the weather does not get any warmer before the beginning of this year’s harvest, the season is predicted to be good and should yield the expected 168 million cartons of apples (fresh and processed), which will represent 64 percent of the nation’s apples and a massive 15.7 percent increase from the 2015 season.
Red Delicious remains the number one in terms of volume for the state, but the recent years have seen an increase of Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and Honey Crisp. A third of the production is exported, the two primary markets being Mexico and Canada due to geographical proximity, followed by Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Europe remains a difficult market to enter due to their extensive existing apple production and post-harvest treatment restrictions that are in place.
According to Lyons, the two main challenges for the apple industry remain mother nature and labor management. Sourcing unskilled labor during the short and intense harvest period continues to prove difficult. Packhouses are transitioning from manually operated lines, to sophisticated technology and automation, thus creating increased demand for more skilled and qualified operators from a limited talent pool. Larger companies continue to invest into labor-saving packhouse technology.
Ongoing labor issues aside, growers still expect a very high quality crop with a beautiful finish and sizing larger than prior years.
Like Lyons, Ray Norwood, Sales Manager at Auvil Fruit Company also believes this season will be just as good as last year and expects his own production to be around 2 million boxes — half of it being Granny Smith and the rest, Fuji, Gala, Cripps Pink, Honey Crisp. In addition, Auvil are the only U.S. grower of Aurora Golden Gala, a unique variety developed in Canada. With increasing acreage of new plantings in the region, Auvil is planning to grow significantly. According to Norwood, the critical aspect of the business is to listen to the client, working very closely in partnership, and making all the necessary adjustments to supply according to their needs. “Sometimes it will be more volume and sometimes it will be specific varieties,” explained Norwood.
This balance between volume and specialty varieties is key to Auvil’s growth strategy. The next 5 to 10 years should
see Auvil become a larger player, helped by their recent investment: another Compac (10 lane sorter) equipped with Spectrim. “This is huge for us,” said Norwood, referring to their Compac equipment investment. Auvil is looking forward to seeing the completion of the installation next August.
Andy Tudor, Director of Business Development at Rainier Fruit Company shared similar sentiments as Auvil — keeping the consumer first and listening to their feedback (often coming from social media) is key to staying ahead of the competition. "Rainier strives to keep up with the standard of the consumer rather than the standard of the industry — driving efforts to produce a high quality product and create an emotional connection with consumers."
Tudor also mentioned the ever-increasing competition for shelf space of new varieties, which challenges the more conventional varieties such as Gala, Fuji and Honey Crisp — Rainier’s most popular crops. Rainier continues to expand, trying to run ahead of the consumer trends to offer the right varieties with a high focus on organic production.
Van Doren Sales, based in East Wenatchee, Washington, has been supplying Compac equipment for over 15 years. Marketing Director, Danelle Huber, confirms the steady growth of the Washington apple industry which represents just under 80% of their market along with commodities like cherries, onions, pears and stonefruit. “Apple packing solutions represent a very important focus for Van Doren Sales, as we know the importance of technology strengthens as the crop continues to grow in order to ensure the highest return to our apple growers,” says Huber.
If achieved, this successful season for Washington will offset the decline of production observed in the eastern and Midwest states and bring the total US Apple harvested crop to 263,344,000 cartons, a 9% increase from 2015.