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Hail projected to put smaller dent in coming Washington apple crop

Officials are working to quantify the actual effect that a July 20 hail storm will have upon this year's crop of Washington apples, but the news is not all that bad. According to Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, the Evergreen State is gearing up for what appears to be the second-largest fresh apple crop in the state's history.

"Although the July hail storms did reduce the projected 2012 Washington apple crop, our forecast is still for the second-largest fresh apple crop in the state's history, 108.75 million boxes," Mr. DeVaney told The Produce News on Aug. 20. "This will help to fill the void left by significant crop losses in the eastern U.S. and Canada, but will still represent a smaller national crop, which should translate into strong demand and pricing for Washington's apple industry."

According to Mr. DeVaney, the hail storm coursed an indiscriminate path, severely damaging specific portions of orchards while leaving trees only rows away unscathed. The hardest-hit areas were the lower Yakima Valley north of Sunnyside, WA, and the Royal Slope in Grant County, WA. He said some growers saw hail stones the size of grapes striking fruit.

"It was plenty destructive," he said of the storm's aftermath.

Mr. DeVaney said that data from the U.S. Apple Association indicate national supplies will be down 10 percent this season. Mr. DeVaney said this figure tracks closely with data provided by individual apple packers in the Yakima Valley.

Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, WA, said the company losses will not be severe, and overall volume this season will be on par with the 2011-12 crop year.

"It might, in the end, bring us down 10-15 percent," he told The Produce News Aug. 20.

The effect of the damage will be offset by the fact that Stemilt was expecting increased volume prior to the hail storm. While the company has slightly increased its production acreage, he attributed boosts in volume to horticultural practices such as high-density plantings and pruning techniques that increase tree vigor and productivity. Mr. Pepperl said that data from the U.S. Apple Association show that Washington is expected to account for 77 percent of the national fresh apple crop this season.

Chuck Sinks, president of Sage Fruit Co. in Yakima, WA, said that his company was also looking at increased volume prior to the storm. He expects damage to also be 10-15 percent. "Every shipper in Washington was affected by this," he told The Produce News Aug. 18. "We'll have some good fruit not affected by the hail."

Asked if the storm will reduce export volume for the coming season, Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, said, "It's too early to be definitive, but it's highly likely. With the reductions in New York and Michigan, we anticipate higher domestic demand. With this increased demand, it's going to come down to 'risk versus reward' - sell domestically and make delivery in a week or less, or send the apples to overseas markets with a transits approaching 45 days in some cases."

He also offered some comments regarding the process sector.

"Washington holds 77 percent of all the fresh product," Mr. Fryhover said. "Michigan was hit hard, and there are many processors in that region of the U.S. that may be taking apples from Washington for processing in Michigan. This would help firm the processor market prices. We need this."