If Washington’s 129-million-box apple crop took you by surprise last fall, consider this.
If there hadn’t been hailstorms throughout Washington State during the growing season, there could have been 12 to 15 million more boxes by harvest, observes Lindsay Buckner, senior vice president for fruit procurement and grower services at fruit processor Tree Top, Inc.
Add to that the volume of apples culled from the crop and sent to processors (about 18 percent of the total), and total apple production in the state could have been 177 million boxes.
A survey of Washington nursery tree sales that Buckner compiled last year shows that growers continue to expand their orchards. The volumes of tree sales for planting in 2013 and 2014 are the highest since he began doing the biennial survey almost 30 years ago. The survey is based on sales data from seven major commercial nurseries that sell a high percentage of trees in the Pacific Northwest. More than 60 percent of the trees sold for planting this spring were Gala, Honeycrisp, or Fuji.
Gala is the top variety being planted, accounting for 27 percent of all trees sold in 2013 and 24 percent of trees budded for planting next year. In terms of apple production, Gala is Washington’s second-ranking variety after Red Delicious. The variety is easy to grow and crops consistently. Given strong fresh demand and good returns to growers, Gala is probably the safest variety for a grower to plant today, Buckner said. There was a concern in the late 2000s that Gala might have been overplanted, but it continues to perform well in the marketplace. Most Gala trees being planted nowadays are for new acreage, though some pre-1994 plantings are being updated as the industry transitions to solid-red strains. Buckner expects future Gala tree sales to be 20 to 25 percent of the total.
Honeycrisp made up only 4 percent of the 2012 crop but looks set to increase in importance. It is the second most-planted variety, accounting for 22 percent of the trees budded for sale next year, the highest percentage ever for that variety. The variety commands high prices as a result of strong demand in the fresh market. It is tough to grow and handle and has lower packouts than most varieties, but the industry is learning how to grow, store, and handle it, which should improve packouts in the future, Buckner said. In addition, redder strains of Honeycrisp are being developed. Buckner expects that Honeycrisp tree sales will also continue at between 20 and 25 percent of the total.
The third most-planted variety is red Fuji at 15 percent of the tree sales for this year and next, down from a high of 26 percent of tree sales in 2010. Fresh demand for the variety seems to have peaked, but as the market demands redder Fujis, the industry is planting higher-coloring strains. Many of the trees sold are for replacement blocks. Buckner believes Fuji will remain one of the state’s major commercial varieties and expects to see future tree sales in the 20 to 25 percent range. Early Fuji varieties have continued to decline as a percentage of trees sold. There appears to be an adequate supply of Early Fuji to fill the short market window before regular Fuji, and the variety does not store as well.
No other single variety accounted for more than 4 percent of tree sales. Granny Smith and Cripps Pink tree sales have been fairly steady, while Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Cameo, Jonagold, and early Goldens have all declined to negligible numbers.