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The Pacific Northwest looks set to have a bumper crop of apples, pears, and cherries this season, while eastern districts are reporting tree fruit crops a fraction of their normal volume.
With no losses to freezes or frost and good pollination weather, all that Northwest growers have to worry about now is having enough labor to harvest the crops.

“Everybody’s concerned about labor,” said Dave Gleason, horticulturist with Kershaw Fruit Company, Yakima, Washington, noting that it will be particularly difficult if there’s a big need to hand thin apples while a big cherry crop is being picked. “Almost everyone seems to have a good crop, and that will use up a lot of labor.”

Karen Lewis, Washington State University extension specialist, said growers are particularly worried about a shortage of labor because of reports that workers from Mexico are no longer coming into the United States because of crackdowns on illegal immigration.

“It’s got to be our number-one problem,” said Lewis, who is working on WSU research projects focusing on automating orchard practices such as harvesting. “There’s not a single grower out there that’s not just consumed with how they’re going to proceed the rest of this year because many of them were already down at thinning time.”

Dan Kelly, assistant manager at the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said estimates of the Washington apple crop are all over the board, but the most common number seems to be 120 million packed boxes—compared with 109 million in 2010 and 108 million for the current season.

“What the real number is, we’re going to have to wait until August to find out,” he said. “I hate to throw any numbers out there now.”

Although the cherry crop could shrink some because of fruit drop, Kelly said the industry is expecting a large crop. Northwest Cherry Growers will hold its annual five-state cherry meeting to assess the crop on May 16 in Richland, Washington.

A team of industry fieldmen, who assess the cherry crop throughout the season for Northwest Cherry growers, made an initial estimate in early May of 21 million 20-pound boxes, though some orchards had not yet gone through bloom when the estimate was made. Harvest is expected to peak between July 1 and 3. Typically, about 20 to 30 percent of the crop is diverted to processors. The total crop on the trees is estimated at almost 272,000 tons.

If the estimate holds as the seaason progresses, that would make it the region’s largest cherry crop ever. The previous record was 19.5 million boxes packed in 2009. Last year, the Northwest produced 15 million boxes of cherries.

Fireblight

Tim Smith, Washington State University extension educator based in Wenatchee, said there’s good, strong bloom everywhere in Washington state, and there’s been no frost of any consequence. “Conditions for pollination have been decent to excellent, so the main thing people are doing right now is trying to reduce the crop on the trees, with blossom thinning and postbloom thinners going on. There’s no concern that we’re not going to have at least an excellent crop.”

There is a question, however, about fireblight damage to apples and pears. The spring was generally cool, but on April 22-24, temperatures reached as high as 90 degrees while pears were blooming in the southern part of the state and apples were in full bloom. The hot weather was followed two days later by rain across the state.

In the cooler areas of the state, such as the Wenatchee Valley, pears had not been blooming long enough to be susceptible to fireblight, Smith said, and apples were barely in bloom. Smith said he was worried about the potential for fireblight from about Mattawa south and the Yakima Valley. Typically, it takes a few weeks for disease symptoms to appear. While there could be serious fireblight outbreaks in individual orchards, any damage is unlikely to significantly reduce the state’s overall crops, he said.

Kelly said the timing of tree and crop development is running right on average, whereas the 2011 apple crop was harvested two weeks later than normal. This means the switch to the new crop will come a couple of weeks earlier than last year, but shipments of the 2011 crop have been running ahead of the previous season, Kelly said, and supplies should clean up well. “They’re still moving right along, and the numbers are staying up there,” he said.

In April, the state shipped 10.2 million boxes of apples, the second-highest April shipments ever, after the 10.6 million boxes shipped in April of 2009.

Northwest pear growers will meet in Portland, May 30-31, to compile the first official estimate of the 2012 pear crop. The Washington apple industry releases its first official apple estimate on August 1.