Despite hail damage, Washington could still have a large crop, Dan Kelly reported to USApple.

Despite hail damage, Washington could still have a large crop, Dan Kelly reported to USApple.

Geraldine Warner

For the first time, the U.S. Apple Association has departed significantly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its estimate of the size of the United States apple crop.

USApple’s estimate of the crop size, made August 17, is more than 10 million bushels—5.3 percent—higher than the USDA estimate made a week earlier. USApple says the total U.S. crop size will be 202.1 million bushels; USDA forecast 192.0 million.

Almost the total difference comes in the estimate for the state of Washington. USDA says there are 135.7 million bushels in Washington’s orchards, and USApple says there are 145.0 million.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager at Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, agreed that the hailstorms of July 20 had hit a lot of orchards, especially around Yakima. But, he asked, “How much hail damage do we really have?” In most cases, damage was limited to one side of the tree and the other was left unscathed.

“We’ve had a challenge,” he said. “But we still have an excellent crop on the trees.” He’s predicting that Washington growers will pack out more than the 108.7 million boxes of fresh apples they did last year, perhaps as much as 10 to 20 million more, depending on the outcome of the hail damage.

Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs for USApple, said it was the first time ever that the USApple estimate was more than 5 percent This was the first time the USApple estimate was more than 5 percent above the USDA estimate, said Mark Seetin.different from the USDA estimate. If the USDA estimate becomes correct, the crop will be 14 percent smaller than last year, the smallest since 1986, and rank 31st in size.

He noted that USDA and USApple have an informal “who’s closer” rivalry, and USDA was closer last year, but both estimates were within 1 percent of the final crop size (determined by USDA when all is said and done in August.)

About 300 apple industry people met in Chicago August 16 and 17 to evaluate the size and condition of the apple crop, worldwide. The U.S. Apple Association hosts the annual event, the Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Another million bushels of the increased estimate came from Michigan, where USDA estimated a crop size of 2.5 million bushels, a near complete bust and 87 percent below the crop of 23.5 million in 2011.

Mike Rothwell, president of BelleHarvest Sales in Belding, Michigan, chairs the Midwest group discussions, and the strongly represented Michigan contingent agreed to add a million bushels to the USDA estimate.

While earlier industry experts predicted virtually none of Michigan’s crop would be picked—too small to mess with—the mindset now, Rothwell said, is that “every apple has value and probably every one will come off the trees.”

“Looking back, the smallest crop Michigan has had was 11.19 million bushels in 1959,” he said. “We now know what a crop failure really looks like.”

Michigan had a huge crop failure in 1945, after a similar-to-2012 warm March advanced tree development and April freezes wiped the trees clean of apples. Growers look at these as once-in-a-century events, but Seetin reminded everyone that the 1945 event followed a similar one only two years earlier, in 1943.

Undaunted, Michigan growers are treating this as a transition year, Rothwell said, hoping for a return to a 25-million-bushel crop next year—hopefully not larger, he added. It is difficult to market crops that are erratic in size, he said, and hard to market a big crop after a small one that caused lost market share.

"We now know what a crop failure really looks like," said Mike Rothwell of Michigan.But Michigan growers are building infrastructure as they head toward annual production of 30 to 35 million bushels, Rothwell said. They’re planting new orchards with better varieties, installing wind machines and deer fences to protect the crop, and packers are putting in new sorting lines and storages.

In making their estimates, growers and packers from the three regions of the United States—East, West, and Midwest—held meetings, evaluated the USDA estimates, compared notes, and proposed new numbers.

Rothwell spoke for the Midwest, where most states stuck with the USDA estimate. Of the ten states in the region producing apples, Missouri was the only one with a positive increase in production, “the Midwest’s a shining star,” Rothwell said, with an estimated 800,000 bushels. The Midwest, where Michigan is the largest producer, normally generates about 26 million bushels, but this year will do only 7 million after widespread spring freezes.

In the East, the picture is mixed, according to Phil Glaize, owner of Glaize Apples in Winchester, Virginia. North Carolina had hard freezes on April 12, cutting its production forecast by 68 percent from its five-year average to 850,000 bushels.

New York, the big producer in the East, was forecast by USDA to produce 14 million bushels plus a few, but the New Yorkers said 14 million even. The crop is down 54 percent from the five-year average.

Most of New England is down in production. Of the 13 states in the East, only Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia have crops close to their historic averages.

Kelly, in reporting for the West, noted that California seems to have stopped its declining production and is in the market with Granny Smiths, Fujis, and Galas at a production level of about 7.2 million bushels, according to USApple estimates, which are higher than USDA’s count of 6.7 million.

Washington is the big player in the West. Oregon's production is estimated at 24 percent over last year’s production at 7.3 million bushels. Idaho and Colorado production is also forecast as up more than 20 percent from their five-year averages.