The economic situation that Washington State apple growers are struggling with today took root in the 1970s when several factors led to expansion of tree fruit acreage, according to Dr. Tom Schotzko, agricultural economist with Washington State University.
Tax laws of that time encouraged orchard development as an investment; the Columbia Basin irrigation project made ground available for farming; and the closure of Washington’s sugar beet plant left farmers looking for other crops to plant.
Washington’s fresh apple crop during the late 1970s had been averaging around 40 million packed boxes, but production began to increase in the 1980s.
Schotzko said he regards 1987 as a watershed year. A 68-million-box crop that year—an extraordinarily large volume for that period—demonstrated to the industry that it needed to develop more markets for the fruit, and industry organizations went on to do that quite successfully.
The 1990s were profitable, until the 1998 crop came in at 97 million boxes. Although 570,000 bins (equivalent to 10 million packed boxes) of fruit were left in the field, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, there was still enough volume to create a carryover of fresh packed fruit into the following season, and that led to a poor marketing situation in the relatively short crop year of 1999. All this coincided with the entrance of Chinese apples into international markets.
Meanwhile, the dominance of Red Delicious in Washington had started to erode. Schotzko said the 2001 Washington Fruit Survey showed that the state had 82,000 acres of Red Delicious, of which 39,000 acres had been planted before 1981. “Forty-five percent of the Red Delicious acreage was technologically obsolete,” he said. Not only that, but there were 30 different strains of Red Delicious in the ground, creating the potential for variable fruit quality.
U.S. Department of Agriculture census figures show a decline in apple acreage from 215,000 in 1997 to 173,000 in 2002, Schotzko said. However, he added, the drop in acreage has been offset by increasing yields, so production has continued to increase. In 2004, the state’s crop topped 100 million boxes for the first time, coming in at 105 million boxes. The 2005 crop was 100 million boxes, and another big crop is expected in 2006.