One of Todd Fryhover's first tasks as president of the Washington Apple Commission is to figure out how to export a larger percentage of the crop.
The 2008 crop is estimated at 113 million packed boxes, a jump of 14 percent from last year, but the domestic market has been stable, taking 70 to 75 million boxes of Washington apples.
"If you use that as your base, you're going to have to move more fruit internationally," Fryhover said. "Can we expand our export markets? Absolutely, if the economic factors or politics and things we can't control don't kill us. There's definitely the ability for Washington to expand its markets."
The Apple Commission has set a target of at least 35 million boxes of exports this year, up from 29 million last year. It is instituting regional conference calls with its 13 overseas representatives to discuss the markets around the world and will provide information to the industry.
"We told the reps we need 15 percent more export movement," Fryhover said. Specific goals will be established for each market. For example, the commission's foreign trade committee hopes to see the volume going to Mexico increase from 9 to 11 million boxes. "That's a lofty goal, but that's the number-one priority from our foreign trade committee," Fryhover said.
China, the world's biggest apple producer, also increased production by 15 percent this season, and the influence of cheap Chinese apples can be felt in a lot of export markets, Fryhover said.
However, because of the Washington brand and the state's reputation as being the best producer of apples in the world, Washington is not competing directly with the world's low-cost producers, he said. It needs to target the more affluent consumers.
"Those middle- and upper-income people are affected by the recession, no question about it—everyone is—but they're affected less than the people who are living from paycheck to paycheck," he said. "We're hoping our consumer base hasn't shrunk that much, and they will continue to buy Washington apples."
Because of the size of the total crop, the commission's focus has shifted away from branding to how to move greater volumes of fruit. Demonstrations and sampling are a big part of the program.
An abundance of small-sized apples this season opens up opportunities in export markets that don't take the larger sizes. India, for example prefers fruit in the 125 to 150 size range.
The Apple Commission received a total of $4.8 million of federal Market Access Program funds for 2008, including about $525,000 allocated late in the year. Fryhover said the commission's foreign trade committee is focusing on the industry's long suits this season and decided to use those funds specifically to promote Golden Delicious and small Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples in Mexico, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Long term, Fryhover also sees a need to remind overseas consumers that Washington produces many varieties other than Red Delicious. While Red Delicious accounts for 30 percent of the crop, it makes up 43 percent of Washington exports.
"No one grows Reds like Washington, but we have some other varieties—Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink," he said. "Variety expansion is real critical to Washington's success in the export market in the future."