A bin of Buckeye Galas from the New Royal Bluff Orchard in Royal City, Washington, is harvested in late August. Gala is expected to overtake Red Delicious as the No. 1 U.S. apple variety by volume this year. This high-density organic block in its fourth-leaf replaced a block of Granny Smiths to address market trends and clear the way for labor-saving machines like platforms. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
A new top variety in the United States, dismal production in China and a record harvest in Europe were just a few of the headlines from the U.S. Apple Association’s 2018 Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference.
Nearly 300 people attended the event, held every year in late August in Chicago, where industry leaders from around the globe gather to prognosticate about the upcoming apple season.
Here’s a look at the estimated 2018 crop from the various regions of the world.
A rebound in the Midwest, reasonable weather in the East and a slightly lower than anticipated Washington crop led growers and industry officials to predict a nationwide apple crop of 256.2 million bushels for 2018. If the figure holds, it would be 6 percent lower than last year and 2 percent below the five-year average. When discussing the nationwide crop volume, the apple industry measures in 42-pound bushel equivalents and includes both fresh and processing apples.
However, the variety breakdown might be the biggest news. For the first time in at least 50 years, Red Delicious will not be America’s most popular variety by volume. If the figures hold, the crown will go to Gala.
“This is probably the year that Gala is going to move into first place,” said Mark Seetin, USApple’s director of regulatory and industry affairs.
The apple industry expects to harvest about 52.4 million bushels of Galas, followed by 51.7 million Red Delicious, long the iconic fruit of the entire industry. Granny Smith, Fuji and Honeycrisp round out the rest of the top five.
Also, Honeycrisp — nicknamed Moneycrisp for its high returns — overtook Golden Delicious for the fifth spot for the first time. Seetin expects it may reach third place in a few years.
Each year, the federal government makes a prediction of the U.S. crop in early August, right when harvest begins in most places, followed by the USApple Outlook conference prediction later in the month. Over the years, conference delegates have turned it into a game to see who comes closer to the final tally, Seetin said.
“We have prided ourselves on being able to do a better job than the USDA,” Seetin said. The conference estimate had a winning streak for about five years, but the past two years the federal Department of Agriculture statisticians have come closer, Seetin said.
This year’s estimate from the Outlook conference falls below the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, mostly because Washington growers lowered their expectations after a couple of weeks of picking, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, based in Yakima.
“Some of the reported causes of this were variable crop load on the tree and between trees and variable maturity of the fruit within each orchard, which has complicated harvest,” DeVaney told Good Fruit Grower after the conference.
As usual, Washington is expected to lead the way in America with 155 million bushels, 13 percent lower than the 178.5 million harvested in 2017 and about 5 percent below the five-year average of 163.3 million. The state is expected to produce about 61 percent of the nation’s apples this year.
Overall, the West — Washington, California, Oregon and Idaho — expects to harvest 166 million bushels.
The Midwest expects a crop of 31.6 million bushels, 8 percent above average and a healthy rebound from an unusually low 2017 harvest caused by a late spring frost in Michigan. The 2017 Michigan crop was 20 million bushels, 29 percent below expectations. Besides Michigan, Midwest apple producers are Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota.
Led by New York and Pennsylvania, Eastern states expect a 58.4 million-bushel harvest, right in line with the five-year average and almost exactly the same as last year. Eastern growers reported damp weather but little if any hail.
The United States will be hard-pressed to match last season’s economics. Overall, the farm gate value of the United States apple crop was a record $3.55 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, America also set a record for export volume in 2017 with 53 million bushels and nearly a record in export value at $1.1 billion.
Also noteworthy, India edged Canada in 2017 as America’s second-leading export market behind Mexico.
Marketing is going to be more challenging this year due to a bigger crop in Europe and trade disputes, but Seetin saw potential.
“We have very, very good reason to be optimistic,” he said.
Canada expects a crop of 17.9 million bushels in 2018, up 14 percent over last year but down 5 percent from the five-year average, according to the Canadian Horticultural Council. McIntosh will lead the way at 5.1 million bushels, followed by Gala at 2.8 million and Empire at 1.3 million.
The crop in Nova Scotia suffered some damage from a June 4 freeze, but the overall Canadian crop is expected to pick clean at normal timing, said Don Werden of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association in Simcoe, Ontario.
China is in for a rare drop in production this year due to a severe early April frost, where temperatures fell below freezing for six or seven hours during full bloom.
“The crop reduction was so huge, I’ve never seen it in my career,” said Michael Choi, president of the Zhonglu America Corporation, showing photo after photo of orchards nearly void of fruit. Up until this year, China had been setting annual production records.
Choi expects production to drop anywhere from 30 percent to 90 percent depending on location. Some growers had given up on their crop and sought temporary jobs in the cities to help pay the bills.
Overall, he predicted a crop of 32.1 million metric tons, a 28 percent reduction from 2017. However, Choi offered only his best educated guesses based on travels ever since the Chinese government ceased releasing official data in March this year.
Industry leaders expect Europe to bounce back strong from a low 2017 crop hurt by frost, calling for a 12.56 metric ton harvest in 2018, said Philippe Binard, the secretary general of the World Apple and Pear Association. That figure is a little lower than an estimate from earlier in the month, but still would set a record.
Poland alone, Europe’s largest producer, could be on track for a 4.48 million metric ton crop, 56 percent higher than last year and 26 percent higher than the five-year average. Italy is expected to harvest 2.2 million metric tons, followed by France with 1.42 million metric tons. Some of the smaller European Union producers expect to double or triple their 2017 crop.
South American apple countries — Argentina, Brazil and Chile — should produce between 2.84 million and 3.6 million metric tons, said Rene Alarcon, commercial manager for Döhler North American Fruits and Vegetables.
The lower figure comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the higher one from the World Apple and Pear Association. Alarcon estimates the true answer will fall somewhere in the middle, but none of the three countries provided their own official estimates, he said.
Argentina will produce between 530,000 and 635,000 metric tons, both figures lower than 2017. Brazil is on pace for 1.05 million to 1.19 million metric tons, also lower than 2017. Chile likely will grow to between 1.26 million and 1.76 million tons. The higher World Association number would mark a 5 percent increase.
Also hurt by frost, Mexico is expected to have a down year with 325,000 metric tons, down about 19 percent from the yearly average, said Leighton Romney, chief executive officer for the Paquimé Group in Chihuahua.
Even on a good year in Mexico, stores must meet domestic demand with imports. This year, the expected volume will fall about 58 percent short of the demand, opening the door for a lot of imports. Mexico is typically the United States’ largest apple export market, while the U.S. is Mexico’s greatest import source of apples.
Of course, trade issues cloud the forecast this year. Currently, Mexico tacks a 20 percent tariff on imported U.S. apples and requires fumigation or a 40-day cold storage inspection period.
Meanwhile, inflation has dampened the purchasing power of Mexican shoppers, Romney said. All fresh fruit sales have been down about 30 percent from last year, while apples are expensive on store shelves in Mexico compared to tropical fruits. •
Ross Courtney is an associate editor for Good Fruit Grower, writing articles and taking photos for the print magazine and website. He has a degree from Pacific Lutheran University. -- Follow the author -- Contact: 509-930-8798 or email.