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California apple producers fret over potential window overlap with early apple crop

Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission in Fresno, CA, told The Produce News that just about all California crops, including apples, are running about eight days early this year.

“Growers are concerned that the early harvest could mess up the windows, and California’s apple niche is well-timed and short,” said Ott. “We’re also facing a labor situation, and part of this is due to the early crop. The experienced laborers AlexOttHeadShotAlex Ottwe need are still working in other areas. And in general we need even more experienced labor than is available today.”

He pointed out that a shortage of labor could mean that not all the apples get off the trees. The state may make a projection of 1 million units, but without enough labor, maybe only 80 or 90 percent are picked. The labor shortage is also contributing to increased labor costs.

In spite of these glitches, even combined, California is expecting a better-than-average crop, but it’s too early to see how things will play out in the coming weeks.

Ott is also the executive director of the California Blueberry Commission and of the California Olive Committee, a federal marketing order. The three agencies are housed in the same building, but they have separate phone numbers, emails, websites and boards.

“Many organizations are teaming up to utilize the same resources, which makes great economic sense,” said Ott. “The Blueberry Commission was formed three years ago. We have established the Californian Blueberry Marketing Intelligence Resource Center, which requires all handlers to report details on volumes, pack styles and sizes, pricing, destinations and other details. This will enable us to get a handle on what is being produced in the state and where it’s going. The first season we were organized, growers produced 29 million pounds of blueberries, and the numbers have increased every year since. Blueberries are also running about eight days early this year.”

The California Olive Committee functions in a similar manner, with the addition of marketing, promotion, inspection and standardization, but it’s a much longer established industry. The state produces 95-98 percent of the country’s canned ripe olives, which is an alternative bearing crop.

Ott explained how being early could cause some bumps and grinds for California apple growers and marketers this year. California apple producers do not use controlled-atmosphere storage, and instead market only fresh supplies, and there is a fine science behind this decision. The state’s apples typically come on during a supply gap between imports and Washington state movements, providing California with a perfect market niche.

“This has been an interesting year, and the coming year could be even more interesting,” Ott noted. “Because of the short crops in Michigan and New York last harvest, more pressure was put on Washington’s crop. They may still be shipping some stored apples, but I don’t think they will be a major factor in our movement. However, if New Zealand and Chile continues to ship, that could slow down our market. Overall, I don’t think being early is going to mean a bad or even fair year, but instead I expect it to be a good to great year.”

Ott said that years ago California was considered a major player in apple production. In the mid-1990s apple growers in California were producing 10 million boxes of apples annually. But competition and other factors caused growers to rip out what they couldn’t sell and plant what could. The state’s apple production declined pretty fast.

Today, growers there produce between 2.5 million boxes and 3.5 million boxes, and that average has held over the past several years. And Ott added that this is precisely where California apple growers and marketers want to stay. If production gets any larger, it will take the state out of its niche because it will then be competing with a lot of fruit that starts coming on from other areas. If the crop falls under 2.5 million boxes, they risk losing customers because they can’t supply them.

Looking forward, Ott said the coming year may be even more interesting than this one.

“It will be interesting to see how those states that did not have a good crop last year will fare this year,” he said. “That will affect how Washington moves its crop. These factors, combined with imports, could set us up for some extraordinary times. It could be my version of a perfect storm, or on the contrary, it could turn out to be a benefit to California.”

California’s apple crop this year is projected to be at 2.475 million boxes. Of this number, about 1 million boxes are the Gala variety. Granny Smiths will be at just over 1 million, Fujis will be at about 225,000 boxes, Cripps Pinks will be at 125,000 and about 50,000 boxes will be in other miscellaneous varieties.

“California continues to be a viable state for apple production because of its niche window,” said Ott. “Growers pulled out between 400 and 500 acres of older apple trees in the past five to six years, but between 500 and 600 acres went back into the ground in new trees. Fuji and Gala production is increasing, and Granny Smiths are holding in volumes. There is also strong focus today on the Cripps Pink, which is often marketed as the ‘Pink Lady’ brand.”

Over time, growers developed technologies that enable them to now grow very red apples. And the green Granny Smith variety has no blush as is sometimes the case in other areas of the country. The improvements have solidified the state’s niche market.

“California will continue to be a reliable market,” said Ott. “If you want high-quality, fresh product, this is where you come. Of course, if foreign countries are late or Washington is early, our window of opportunity shrinks. Conversely our window expands if either of those regions have problems.

“Growers here have no desire to compete with Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York or any foreign country in apple production,” he continued, “and there is no sense in trying to. Apples are a staple commodity, and we fill a void with a great product.”