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U.S. apple crop up 14 percent for 2013

CHICAGO — The U.S. apple crop this year is expected to total 246.5 million bushels, a figure that was formally announced Aug. 22 at the 2013 Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference, held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, here.

If the estimate is accurate, this would be the 12th-largest crop in U.S. history. This crop is estimated to be 14 percent larger than the frost-decimated 2012 apple harvest. In 2012, U.S. apple volume was 215.7 million bushels, 31 million bushels below the 2013 estimate.

Making the initial estimate presentation was Mark Seetin, director of regulatory policy and industry affairs for the US Apple Association, which presents the annual meeting. Seetin noted that the 2013 estimate was unique and challenging because this year the U.S. Congressional sequester had eliminated USDA's August 2013 tree fruit crop estimate, which the apple industry has traditionally used for its annual perspective.

Steve-LutzSteve Lutz, executive vice president of Nielsen Perishables Group, told the 2013 Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference that while apple prices were very strong last year, they could have been better because apple consumers are loyal and are willing to pay for quality fruit.After a series of presentations at the Aug. 22 international meeting, apple growers met with colleagues from their region in various conference rooms to discuss preliminary regional production estimates and recommend adjustments. With the new industry input, a formal and final 2013 crop estimate was to be announced at the program's Aug. 23 conclusion.

In the absence of a USDA estimate, Seetin said US Apple, which is based in Vienna, VA, had extended efforts with its growers to make an estimate that was effective Aug. 1.

Adding a touch of light skepticism to his numbers, he joked that if three apple growers are placed in a room, they will eventually exit only after forming four organizations and writing five policy statements.

The largest factor in this year's increased national apple numbers is the comeback in the Midwest, led by Michigan. In April 2012, statewide freezes knocked out more than 90 percent of Michigan's crop. Michigan produced only 2.7 million bushels in 2012; in 2013, the state is expected to produce 30 million bushels.

New York state is also making a substantial comeback this year. USApple's preliminary estimate is for Empire State apple volume to leap to 30.5 million bushels from 17.1 million bushels.

The dominant national apple producer is Washington state. The association's Aug. 22 estimate said that Washington's production will be down 7 percent in 2013 -- a drop to 143.9 million bushels from 2012's 154.8 million-bushel total.

Also speaking at the Aug. 22 opening session of the two-day event was Steve Lutz, executive vice president of Nielsen Perishables Group, which is located in Chicago.  

Lutz said that last year apple prices increased 12 percent and ranked third nationally in dollar sales among produce commodities.

But he suggested that apple prices could have been stronger. His analysis of vast retail sales data largely indicates that with too-strong retail promotions, "We turned $2 customers into $1 customers."

He said the consumers who buy apples tend not to be price-motivated for the fruit. "Consumers are willing to pay for the quality we have," he said.

He also noted that "variety trumps growing region," as consumers choose which apples to buy.

In other news, Lutz announced that he would be leaving the Nielsen Perishables Group, effective Aug 30.

The Aug. 22 apple meeting program also included discussions of 2013 apple crops in Europe and China.

Furthermore, Patricia Faison, technical manager of the Juice Products Association, based in Atlanta, detailed the status of the apple juice industry, which is fighting scrutiny due to sensational media reports of arsenic in apple juice.

Apple juice sales have fallen to about two-thirds of the level in 2008, when damaging media reports first appeared.

Providing background for The Produce News, Faison indicated that arsenic is an intrinsic part of the earth's soil. While arsenic's soil presence can be heightened by the use of certain agro-chemicals, she said the substance is common in many food products. The apple juice industry has endured uncommon media attention.