Apple industry leaders from across Washington predict a short crop this year, with estimates ranging from 100 million to 115 million boxes, according to discussion at the Washington Apple Commission’s board meeting this week.
“It seems like nobody has a good crop,” said commissioner Jim Thomas.
That poses a budget challenge for the assessment-funded commission and the other industry organizations it channels grower money into: the U.S. Apple Association and the Northwest Horticultural Council.
At current budget levels, a break-even crop would be about 128 million boxes, commission vice president Robin Mooney told the board during a meeting in Wenatchee on May 26. Crop size averaged about 130 million boxes from 2014 to 2019, but has been closer to 120 million the past two seasons, after frost cut short the harvest in 2020 and heat caused damage in 2021. That heat, and the cold spring weather, both seem to contribute to the short crop growers report this season.
The short-term solution is to reduce the board-designated reserve temporarily, covering the expected $700,000 shortfall in the organization’s $4.7 million budget, president Todd Fryhover said, a move he likened to “a Band-Aid.” Apple commission money is used as an industry match to leverage export marketing funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said, such that $2 million from growers returns $5 million in Market Access Program funding, for example.
“If we have to trim the WAC budget, growers are going to want us to have to trim back the other budgets we’re dealing with,” said commissioner Bob Mast, president of CMI Orchards.
That includes the $600,000 for Northwest Horticultural Council dues and the $1.2 million marked for USApple dues. Washington growers fund about 60 percent of the national group’s budget, said Jim Bair of USApple, who attended the Wenatchee meeting via video-conference.
The board voted to cap the USApple assessment at $1 million, while keeping the hort council’s funding in place, recognizing the critical work the organization does on export market access. It also voted to decrease the board-designated reserve from $4 million to $3 million to give the commission more working capital.
Also at the meeting, Stephanie Bowman, the governor’s liaison to the maritime industry and a former Port of Seattle commissioner, shared an update on the ongoing contract negotiations with the longshoremen and its impact on the region’s export supply chain.
Bowman said the current contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expires on June 30. Although negotiations appear to be progressing, her advice to fruit exporters is to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” she said. In 2014, the port slowdown cost the tree fruit industry tens of millions of dollars, Fryhover said.
Bowman said that the West Coast ports are already seeing a small percentage of cargo diverted via freight to East Coast ports as shippers look for alternatives.
“Nobody wants to see a slowdown,” she said. “But there’s not a lot we can do from sitting in the bleacher seats up here.”
One piece of good news on the export situation came from Jon Wyss, the Washington State director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
At the Port of Seattle and Port of Oakland, the FSA is launching a pilot program to reimburse produce exporters some of the costs incurred when refrigerated shipping containers have to be moved due to delays.
“Your sales and marketing companies will be able to apply for those reimbursed costs on behalf of growers,” he said, to the tune of $400 per container. Trainings on how to apply for the financial support is expected shortly.
Wyss also updated the board on the heat disaster relief program that the agency just approved. Growers who filed a crop insurance claim last season should watch for a letter from the FSA, which has calculated the relief claim based on the data in those insurance claims. A second round of the program, expected later this year, will go to growers who didn’t have crop insurance or ended up not making a claim, he said. Trainings are also planned to help growers navigate the program in the coming weeks, he said.