The Washington industry is taking advantage of good returns to upgrade orchards with better varieties and more efficient systems.
Good returns on apples the last couple of seasons appear to have fueled sales of nursery trees. Nurseries say growers are taking the opportunity to update their orchards with superior strains of major varieties, such as Gala, Fuji or even Red Delicious, and more efficient, higher-density planting systems.
Jack Snyder, president of C & O Nursery in Wenatchee, Washington, said the new plantings could increase production, though he doesn't expect to see a big acreage expansion.
"The acres that are going to be planted are going to be managed better, so you're going to get more production per acre, which is lowering the cost of what we have into the fruit," he said.
Ron Everts at Brandt's Fruit Trees, Inc., in Yakima, Washington, said he's seen the bigger fruit companies replanting orchards, increasing the tree density from, say, 200 to 500 per acre to 1,000 to 1,200 per acre. The hot varieties are early, high-colored Gala and Fuji strains. Pink Lady is sold out, and Honeycrisp has sold out virtually every year.
Pete Van Well II at Van Well Nursery, East Wenatchee, also reports strong demand for new strains of Gala and Fuji, which he believes are for replanted orchards. The nursery's current bestseller is Gale Gala, along with Honeycrisp. New strains of Red Delicious and Banning Red and Aztec Fuji have also been in strong demand.
"I don't know if the acreage is really going to grow," Van Well said. "I think the industry will be more productive with the acreage it has. People are making changes to maybe more dwarfing rootstocks and upgrading varieties because I think they're optimistic about the future."
The redder strains of Red Delicious, such as Scarlet Spur, Oregon Spur, and Super Chief, are selling well, Van Well reported, which might be due to a stronger market for Red Delicious than in the past. The volume on the market has dropped and quality has improved, partly, perhaps, because of MCP (1-methylcyclopropene).
"I think the quality of the Red out there, just from my standpoint as a consumer, is better. I've had some fantastic Red Delicious in March, April, and May—the times of year we used to think were sometimes iffy. I think we're just doing a better job with Reds."
Replant 10 percent
Neal Manly at Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington, said it's recommended that growers replant 10 percent of their orchard each year in order to stay competitive, but many smaller growers probably weren't doing that when finances were tight between 1999 and 2003.
"The last three, maybe even four years, growers have been doing much better," he noted. "Prices have been up. They've been making good money, and I just hope they've been taking advantage of this and replacing some of their old, tired varieties."
Trees on dwarfing rootstocks have been in high demand, he said. Growers are planting at higher densities to recoup their investment faster, and are growing Gala on the Malling 9 rootstock, hoping for better fruit size than on M.26.
Paul Tvergyak with Cameron Nursery, Eltopia, also reports strong sales of mainline varieties, with some sold out. "We don't have a lot of trees left for 2009. Everybody's after Honeycrisp and Aztec Fuji, and Gala."
Tvergyak thinks many of the trees are going to smaller growers who are upgrading their orchards. They're replanting now because they have the money to do it. But he thinks the larger growers are planting new ground as well as upgrading their varieties because they can't afford to stop planting. They have to stay abreast of the new varieties and what their customers want.
Snyder also believes some of the larger, vertically integrated growing and packing operations are expanding their acreage to meet market demand. If they're short of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Fuji, they're building their own tonnage. "The majority of this is the ownership of these companies, not their growers, that is making the decision," he said.
Mike Argo, who runs a nursery and grafting business at Zillah, Washington, thinks about half the nursery trees being sold are for orchard renovations and the other half for new plantings. Many growers or fruit-growing companies would prefer to plant on virgin soil, though there's been a limited amount of new ground available that has water and is suitable for orchard.
Argo said growers have been taking out inefficient Red Delicious blocks. Poor-coloring strains of Gala are coming out quickly, to be replaced by better strains. He doesn't see as many Fuji blocks being replaced, though some growers are updating with Aztec. Varieties planted in marginal areas are being taken out and replaced with varieties that match the site better. In some cases, growers are grafting over rather than replanting if they're happy with the planting.
However, it's hard to see the big picture because different growers have different philosophies, he said.
For example, one large company is doing minimal renewal and prefers to sell orchards when they reach the end of their life and plant new ground. Another large company, on the other hand, is aggressively renewing its orchards and grafting to different varieties, though it will pick up new land when available.
Argo also sees some small growers expanding as well as renovating, perhaps picking up an additional five to ten acres from a neighbor.
"I think we're headed towards bigger crops," he said.
Dale Goldy, horticulturist for Stemilt Ag Services in Wenatchee and a partner in Gold Crown Nursery at Quincy, agrees. He's seen a lot of expansion to new ground as well as orchard renewal over the past three years and thinks Washington's apple production will be in the 110-million-box range for awhile.
The upgrading of existing varieties to "second-generation" strains is being driven by competition between growers for labor at the orchard level as well as market demands, he said. Many of the new strains require only a single pick.