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Certified organic cherry acreage in Washington State will more than double in the next two seasons, judging by the estimated acreage in transition. By 2009, Washington could have 2,300 acres of certified organic cherries—more than 6 percent of the total acreage, according to a recent report by David Granatstein and Elizabeth Kirby.

The researchers from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources say marketers have expressed optimism about demand for organic cherries. For the 2007 crop year, when Washington shipped 1.75 million 20-pound boxes of organic cherries, the average premium for organic cherries over the conventional price was $15.57 a box (38 percent), figures from the ­Washington Growers Clearing House Association show.

Only two other states besides Washington report having organic cherry orchards. California has 272 acres of cherries, with an unknown amount in transition, and Oregon has 183 acres. No other U.S. states have organic cherries.

Italy has the largest organic cherry plantings in the world. Its acreage was expected to increase from just under 4,000 acres in 2006 to 7,207 acres by this year. Turkey is reported to have about 1,417 acres of organic sweet cherries. The Southern Hemisphere has very few.

Apples

Organic apple plantings are increasing in most parts of the world, other than in New Zealand, Granatstein reports. It is estimated that there are 48,806 acres of organic apples globally, with 18,876 of those being in Europe and 12,507 in the United States.

United States: Washington State had more than 8,000 acres of certified organic apples in 2007, with another 6,291 acres in transition. It is by far the largest organic-apple-producing state. Grant County is the largest organic apple producing county in Washington, with 28 percent of the state’s total acreage.

With the acreage in transition to organic, Washington State could have more than 14,000 acres of organic apples by 2009 and the potential to produce close to 10 million boxes, Granatstein ­calculates.

Demand for fresh-sliced organic apples is strong, and this market offers higher prices for lower-grade and small-sized apples than they would otherwise command, which in effect establishes a floor price for fresh-market apples, he noted.

Unmet demand for organic apples is keeping prices high, even with the increasing production. Average organic apple premiums were the lowest in 2001 at 29 percent per box over conventional, according to data from the Washington Growers Clearing House Association. For the 2004-2006 crop years, premiums averaged 40 percent. Fruit size can affect premiums.

For example, in the fall of 2007, organic Washington Extra Fancy Gala, sizes 80 to 100, received premiums ranging from 66 to 82 percent, compared with 22 percent for size 113.

Granatstein said reports from growers indicate that production costs can be comparable to conventional in some circumstances, and often decline over time with experience and improved orchard biological function.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Washington State ­University show that more than 90 percent of organic apples are produced in the semi-arid irrigated regions of the West, where climatic conditions and absence of key pests makes organic production of high-quality fruit more feasible. California is the second-largest organic-apple-producing state, after Washington, with 3,900 acres in 2007; Arizona is next with 881 acres.

Europe: There’s been a big boost in organic production in Europe, reports Granatstein. Germany headed the organic-apple-producing countries of Europe with 6,669 acres in 2006, which he said was surprising since it does not have the ideal environment for organic production. Granatstein will travel to Europe this summer and hopes to learn more about European production.

Italy is Europe’s second-largest organic apple producer with 5,898 acres. The United Kingdom has 2,372 acres, but it is thought that as much as half of those might ­produce fruit for cider production rather than the fresh market. Organic tree fruit production in France has declined in the past few years, even though market demand remains strong.

Turkey is a major producer and exporter of organic tree fruits. Its dry climate is conducive to organic production, and Turkey was reported to have more than 6,700 acres of certified apples, with another 3,794 acres in transition in 2006.

"It looks like they’re serious about ramping it up," Granatstein commented. "They’re going to be bigger and bigger players."

China: China has reported more than 3,900 acres of organic apples, though an unknown portion of that acreage is certified by organizations not accredited by IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) or the National Organic Program. A decrease in organic farmland overall in China has been reported.

Southern Hemisphere: Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Australia have favorable climates for organic tree fruit production. However, New Zealand’s certified apple production has dropped by more than half since 2001. Reasons for this include a limited export market, poor grower returns, and a disincentive to maintain certification because New Zealand does not have organic labeling regulations, Granatstein believes. Argentina and Chile, on the other hand, have more than doubled their production area in recent years.

Overall, the world market looks strong, he reports, and growers are taking the opportunity to meet the increasing demand for organic tree fruit.

Pears

Organic pears make up 5.6 percent of Washington’s 25,200 acres of pears. Organic acreage peaked in 2002 at 1,771 acres. By 2007, the state had 1,418 acres of organic pears, with another 630 acres in transition. Organic pear acreage is on the increase again, but at a slower rate than apples and cherries. Pear juice concentrate is a neutral sweetener and has a niche in the organic processed foods ­market, Granatstein reported.

Average organic pear premiums were the lowest in 2001 at 17 percent ($2.37 a box f.o.b.) over conventional market prices. As organic pear acreage declined in 2003 and subsequent years, premiums rebounded and averaged 60 percent ($12.79 a box) for the 2006 crop year.

Washington is the largest organic-pear-producing state, followed by California, which has 547 certified acres. Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona together have about 275 certified acres.

Turkey is the world’s largest organic pear producer, with around 6,000 acres. Italy has 3,500 acres, and China is thought to have around 3,000 acres. Argentina is by far the largest organic pear producer in the Southern Hemisphere with about 3,500 acres.

Other tree fruits

Significant increases are expected over the next two years in Washington’s other organic soft fruit plantings. In 2007, the state had 498 acres of peach, apricot, nectarine, plums, prunes, and other stone fruits, with another 1,233 acres in ­transition.