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The 2017 apple harvest at Doornink Fruit Ranch began with Buckeye Gala on Aug. 25 in Wapato, Washington. <b>(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

The 2017 apple harvest at Doornink Fruit Ranch began with Buckeye Gala on Aug. 25 in Wapato, Washington. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

U.S. apple growers won’t see a record crop this season, though tough weather conditions for domestic and foreign competitors in other markets could produce strong demand for U.S. apple exports in the year ahead.

Growers in the European Union expected to harvest their smallest crop since 2007 due to severe spring freezes. Rain, heat and hail posed problems for growers in Mexico, where there is growing demand but also increasing concern about the U.S. political climate.

U.S. apple growers predicted a harvest of more than 248.2 million 42-pound bushels, both fresh and processed, in the 2017-18 crop year.

That’s down 8 percent from last year’s crop but in line with early U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts and consistent with the five-year average, according to the latest USApple estimate, released at the USApple Outlook conference in Chicago in August.

USApple represents the nation’s 7,500 apple growers, companies and associations on national issues and educates consumers about the health benefits of apples.

As always, much of the U.S. production is in Washington, at 159.5 million bushels. (Note, this is in 42-pound bushels. Washington tracks its crop in 40-pound boxes and only counts those destined for the fresh market.)

For the entire West, including California, Oregon and Idaho, the total was nearly 170 million bushels.

Nine of the 11 states that contribute to the forecast for the Eastern U.S. expected to see a 6 percent increase in production this season, for an overall total of 54.6 million bushels, following a year of losses due to drought. That’s on par with the five-year average. The top producers by state: New York at 28 million bushels, Pennsylvania at 11.2 million and Virginia at 5.2 million.

In the Midwest, a late freeze hit some growers in Michigan, who anticipated a 27 percent decline in production this season to just 20.3 million bushels. Overall, growers in the Midwest forecast nearly 23.8 million bushels, down 23 percent.

Global apple production last season closed at about 77.2 million tons. China produced more than half the total crop, but generally consumes most of its fresh crop domestically. The EU produced 16 percent and the U.S. contributed 6 percent.

Here’s a look at the apple crop forecast for other regions of the world.

European Union

A year after the European Union produced its third-largest crop of the decade, growers this season predicted a significantly smaller crop at 9.3 million metric tons. That’s just three-fourths of the three-year average and below the five, 10 and 20 year averages.

Nine countries produced their smallest crops in a decade, with Belgium down 46 percent, Italy down 23 percent, Poland down 29 percent, and Slovenia down 50 percent.

The culprit: a mild winter and early bloom followed by two cold spells in April and May that sent temperatures plummeting on average 5 to 10 degrees Celsius below average across the continent. Then, summer brought temperatures 5 to 10 degrees warmer than usual.

Most EU producers are reporting a slightly earlier season, with unpredictable and variable quality and questions about the long-term storability of the fruit, said Philippe Binard of the World Apple and Pear Association.

By variety, growers overall expected harvest to be down from last year by about 425,000 tons for Golden Delicious, 285,000 tons for Idared, and 465,000 tons for Jonagold, the top three varieties. That means the European market likely will be well supplied for the first part of the season, thanks to a stable Gala crop, but will have less volume for the second half of the season, Binard said. Overall, fewer exports also are expected, perhaps at no more than 300,000 tons.

Mexico

Growers in Mexico estimated a crop of 18.3 million 20-kilogram (roughly 44-pound) boxes, slightly below the five-year average.

In the state of Chihuahua, rain during bloom reduced fruit set, which was followed by an unprecedented heat wave of 14 straight days above 104 degrees Fahrenheit in June, according to Leighton Romney with the Paquime Group in Chihuahua. July brought hail “the likes we have never seen.”

All of those factors were expected to affect crop size, fruit size and volume overall, with production expected around 15 million boxes in that region, he said.

Production from other regions: 1.5 million boxes for Puebla; 900,000 boxes for Coahuila; and 850,000 boxes for Durango.

Mexico also imports between 9 million to 12 million boxes annually from the U.S., which provides 98 percent of the imported market share there and 42 percent of the total market share.

There are plenty of reasons to think that U.S. exports to Mexico could thrive in the coming year as well: a longstanding dumping case against the U.S. is over, the exchange rate is good for U.S. exports, the crop size and quality in Mexico is down, and consumers there increasingly have more buying power, he said.

However, strained relations with the U.S. government could dampen prospects.

President Donald Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is stoking anti-American sentiment, and renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has some industries beginning to seek out suppliers outside the U.S., he said.

For instance, the Mexican government has already begun making deals to buy millions of tons of corn, usually purchased from the U.S. and other countries, from Brazil and Argentina. That hasn’t happened so far with apples, but if NAFTA negotiations take a turn for the worse, it could, he said.

In addition, 2018 is a presidential election year in Mexico, and anti-American, socialist parties are gaining strength. “Mexicans are very nervous about the political situation in the United States,” he said.

Canada

Growers in Canada expected to harvest 16.4 million bushels of apples this season, down 5 percent from last season, according to Tom O’Neill of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association in Simcoe, Ontario.

McIntosh leads production at 5.1 million bushels, however Gala continues to gain ground — Gala currently is the most widely planted variety in Canada, but many of those trees are not yet in production. The Gala harvest was forecast at 2.8 million bushels, followed by Empire, Ambrosia and Spartan.

The breakdown by Canadian province follows.

British Columbia: 3.6 million bushels, up 22 percent, with Gala leading the crop at 1.6 million bushels.
Ontario: 5.8 million bushels, down 20 percent. McIntosh leads production there, followed by Empire and Gala.
Quebec: 5.5 million bushels, slightly less than last season, with McIntosh again leading production at 3.2 million bushels.

Nova Scotia: 2.2 million bushels, up 5 percent. Top varieties are Honeycrisp, Northern Spy, McIntosh, Cortland and Ambrosia. New Brunswick: up 5 percent at 220,000 bushels.

China

For the first time in 20 years, apple acreage in China declined in 2016, as growers replaced apples with vegetables and other fruits, such as peaches.

However, due to improvements in new technologies and better management, production was expected to increase this season for the 20th straight year to 45 million metric tons, said Michael Choi, president of Zhonglu America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Zhonglu fruit juice company.

Roughly 82 percent of China’s crop goes to the fresh market, with only 3 percent for export.

Shaanxi province was expected to lead production with not quite 11.8 million tons, a 7 percent increase, followed by Shandong province at nearly 9.2 million tons, a 6 percent decrease due to severe drought.

Forty percent of China’s apple imports come from the U.S., followed by New Zealand and Chile.

South America

South America, namely Chile and Brazil, is a smaller player in terms of total production at just about 4 percent of the total world crop, but Chile, in particular, has a bigger role in terms of exports, with 9 percent of the 8.8 million metric tons of apples exported globally in 2016.

Growing conditions were not ideal in Chile this year, creating size and quality issues, said Rene Alarcon, a broker with the Doehler Group in Santiago, Chile.

Growers there were anticipating a similar or slightly smaller crop compared to 2016, while production in Brazil was expected to rebound to an average size from a smaller than usual crop last season. •

– by Shannon Dininny