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California looking for clean, quality apple crop

by Lora Abcarian | August 10, 2009
Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission, said that the state's apple producers are anticipating a quality crop for the 2009 season. "Size looks good, and the crop looks clean," he told The Produce News in late July.

Last season, growers experienced very favorable conditions, with the 2008 crop exceeding industry expectations. This season, growers and handlers are cautiously optimistic. "We're projecting near to where we were last year," Mr. Ott said. "We're being conservative right now."

California has approximately 23,183 acres in apple production for fresh, farmers markets and process. Of this total, fresh production accounts for approximately 9,000 acres. California is the nation's fifth-largest apple producer and second largest exporter.

The current estimate is for an overall crop of 3.175 million boxes for 2009. Granny Smith production is estimated at 1.8 million boxes, Gala at 900,000 boxes, Fuji at 320,000 boxes, Cripps Pink at 150,000 boxes, and all other varieties taking up the balance.

The Gala harvest began July 19, and Granny Smith will come into production in early August. Fuji production will ramp up in September, followed by Cripps Pink in October. "We're going to have to deal with holdover," Mr. Ott said. "There will be holdover from Washington and some fruit from the Chilean funnel."

Of production prospects, he said, "As long as California stays in the [3 million-] to 4 million-box mark, California will have a successful year. Last year, for the first time in five or six seasons, we actually saw production go up."

Granny Smith is still the industry leader. "California has always grown a really green Granny Smith," Mr. Ott said. But the Granny may slip to second place in the future. Mr. Ott said that Gala production reached nearly a million boxes last season. "Gala may surpass Granny Smith in the coming years," he said. Newer Gala strains such as the Buckeye are being planted. Overhead irrigation systems allow growers to keep field heat down, coloring the apples well and keeping sugars up.

"Last year was one of those years we'll cherish," Mr. Ott added. "Last year, we got rid of the entire Gala crop in three weeks."

Mr. Ott said that the state sees itself as a niche player. "As new varieties are planted or grafted, people do more with less," he said of production. "We're taking the varieties we do well and focusing on them. We try to get in and out of the market as quickly as possible. We don't store our apples. We pick, pack and ship them."

Organic production continues to increase in the Golden State. "It's very exciting to have a diverse apple industry," Mr. Ott said. "Organic is definitely a trend."

On other fronts, the California Apple Commission initiated a new survey in June to give producers a more detailed snapshot of the industry. Mr. Ott said that he hopes the survey will be completed by the end of 2009.

(For more on the California apple deal, see the Aug. 10, 2009 issue of The Produce News.)