Washington State, the country’s largest producer of organic apples, could be set for an increase in production, after a leveling off over the past five years or so.
Demand for all organic foods continues to rise steadily, and this season demand for organic Washington apples will exceed supply, says David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist at Washington State University.
This year, Washington’s total fresh apple crop is estimated at 113 million boxes, down from 129 million a year ago. About 7 percent of the apples are organic.
As of January 1, there were 40 percent fewer organic apples in storage than a year ago, according to Matt Miles with First Fruits Marketing in Selah, Washington.
“We’ll run out of product because it’s a little bit of a short crop year,” Granatstein said. “It will look like our sales went down, but we didn’t have as much to sell. We could have sold more.”
Since Washington’s Organic Food Program began in the late 1980s, organic apple production has increased in a stair-step fashion. It grew in the mid-1990s when mating disruption for codling moth made pests more manageable organically.
After a leveling off in the early 2000s, production jumped again as organics became mainstream and available in retail chains.
Granatstein said there’s a sense of optimism in the organic sector fueled by high f.o.b. prices in recent years.
Whereas conventional apple prices for most varieties are lower than in 2012 (when the Washington industry enjoyed a spectacular year of large volume with high prices), organic prices have gone up from a year ago.
“This year, the price premium per box is about as high as it’s ever been,” Granatstein said.
This is unusual. Organic growers can usually count on a premium, but prices typically follow the same pattern as conventional.
For the past three seasons, prices for most organic varieties have hovered between $30 and $40 a box. Organic Honeycrisp, however, has averaged close to $70 a box all three years. “It’s amazing,” Granatstein said.
Honeycrisp is the one variety that’s on the increase in the organic sector. Certified acreage of Gala, Red Delicious Fuji, Goldens, Granny Smith, and Cripps Pink peaked in 2008 or 2009.
Washington now has 14,000 acres of organic apples, making it the largest organic apple producing state. California is a distant second with around 3,300 acres.
Gala and Fuji are Washington’s top organic varieties with close to 3,500 acres of each, and Honeycrisp is third at about 1,500 acres. The state produces more than a hundred varieties of organic apples.
The acreage of organic pears has declined slightly over the past few years to about 1,820 acres. About 7 percent of Washington’s fresh pears are organic.
Granatstein said the National Organic Standards Board’s decision to drop antibiotics from the approved list of synthetic substances for apples and pears has created some uncertainty among growers about whether they will be able to control fireblight.
Pears are more susceptible to the disease than apples. This is the last season antibiotics can be used to control the disease.
Organic cherry acreage in Washington has dropped by 600 acres from a peak of 2,437 acres in 2009, and very few acres are in transition to organic.
Growers were impacted by low prices in 2009, and the arrival of spotted wing drosophila as a pest has added more uncertainty. Growers have only one pesticide, Entrust (spinosad), to control the pest, and use is restricted to two applications per season, which Granatstein said might not be adequate.
“That’s a big hurdle at the moment,” he said, noting that early maturing varieties will be less vulnerable to the pest than the later ones. •