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The entry of Walmart into organic fruit retailing five years ago helped fuel the demand for organic fruit, and demand is still growing despite the economic recession, according to David Granatstein, Washington State University’s organic tree fruit specialist. Acreage of organic pears and cherries in Washington State dropped between 2009 and 2010, but with young trees still to come into bearing, production could still increase, he said.

“The challenge is to line up our increase in production with demand, so we don’t overshoot it,” he said, noting that there have been huge increases in shipments of Gala and Fuji over the past few years. “I don’t think the bubble’s burst domestically or globally. The key is to match supply and demand.”

Washington produces about 90 percent of the country’s organic apples, pears, and cherries and has more than 20,000 acres of organic tree fruits. The United States is the fourth largest producer of organic fruits and vegetables in the world (excluding China, for which figures are not available). Global acres of organic horticulture crops increased some 56 percent from 2005 to 2008.

Apples

In 2010, Washington had 14,771 acres of certified organic apples, a 6 percent drop from 2009. Fuji has taken the place of Gala as Washington’s most-planted organic apple variety. Red Delicious is the third most-planted variety, closely followed by Granny Smith. Organic Red Delicious production has been stable.

With 15 years of price data, organic apple prices do not show a clear trend up or down. There have been good and bad periods, and plenty of year-to-year variation. For example, from 2004 to 2007, organic apple prices increased despite significant increases in supply.  Organic prices tend to track conventional, though there are times when the premium is high and times when it is not so high, he said. “Rarely do we see organic prices going in one direction and conventional in the other.”

Granatstein, however,  expressed concern about the increasing costs and regulations for organic production and wondered how long it could remain viable. It’s estimated that during the 2009-2010 season, 6 million boxes of apples were sold as organic, but 2 million boxes of organic apples were sold as conventional. There has been no premium for organic Pink Lady in recent years, though organic Honeycrisp prices have been tremendous, he reported.

Pears

Acreage of pears continues to increase. There are now more than 2,000 acres of organic pears in Washington, of which about a third are Bartlett, a third d’Anjou, and a third other varieties. D’Anjou dominated organic pear production in the early years, but Bartlett now accounts for a larger share of organic pear production.

Premiums for pears have been varied. Prices are on a downward trend, suggesting that the market might be becoming saturated, Granatstein said.

Other fruits

Organic cherry acreage increased significantly between 2008 and 2009, but dropped off in 2010 to 2,147 acres. Currently, 6 percent of Washington’s cherry plantings are organic. Premiums for organic cherries are not as high as they used to be.

Organic plantings of apricots, peaches, and nectarines continue to increase, although the plantings are comparatively small (see chart “Organic tree fruit acres in ­Washington State”).

To see more statistics, go to http://csanr.wsu.edu/ Organic/organic.html.