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California apple industry holding tight to its short but strong season

Richard Sambado, director of domestic sales for Primavera Marketing Inc. in Linden, CA, told The Produce News that the movement on the company’s California apple crop started around July 20, which is about the same timing as last year.

 “But that was seven days earlier that the crop started the year before,” said Sambado.  “An early start can also mean slow movement at the start. Imported apples are still moving and Washington still has some old crop Gala apples on the market.

calapGala apples ready for harvest at Primavera Marketing.“If Washington has an early start with its new crop it could put added pressure on our short window,” he said. “Movement of our crop is spotty because of this combination of situations.”

Primavera Marketing packs and ships approximately 1.3 million of the 2.2 million boxes of apples produced specifically for the fresh market each year in California.

Primavera does a nice job in that it provides a niche market, not a commodity, with volumes of fresh apples. Its “perfect” window is from late July to late August with Gala apples.

“We do over a million boxes of apples each year, but we are heavily frontloaded with the Gala variety,” said Sambado. “Galas represent 650,000 boxes this year, which is up from 550,000 boxes last year.

“These are really nice quality Galas, and we push them based on how great they are,” he continued. “But our goal every year is to move them prior to Labor Day. We are hoping to accomplish that this year, but with our early start we won’t know for a while. We’re stumbling out of the block now with this early start and hoping that Washington is not early with its crop. Otherwise we could feel price pressure.”

In addition to Galas, Primavera will have about 200,000 boxes of Fuji, 425,000 boxes of Granny Smith and around 75,000 boxes of Cripps Pink apples this year.

The company ships to retail chain stores across the U.S., into Canada and a small portion to offshore countries.

The company also packs and ships walnuts and cherries.

“Cherries are our number one crop,” Sambado explained. “About 85 percent of our cracked walnuts go offshore. The demand for walnuts in Korea and China is strong. The Chinese produce walnuts but they prefer ours because of the high quality. Koreans are extremely health conscious and they recognize our high growing standards and they appreciate the food safety initiatives in the U.S.”

Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission in Fresno, CA, concurs with Sambado about the short but highly fragile window for apples.

“We pride ourselves on always getting the freshest apples to market,” said Ott. “California producers do not store apples. When consumers buy an apple from another state there’s a chance that it’s been sitting in storage for a year. But this short window is very fragile in that many issues can affect it.”

One of the California Apple Commission’s primary functions is to make sure that the market windows are open so that companies like Primavera can continue to produce apples.

“The biggest issue we’re facing is keeping the markets open,” Ott explained. “Trade barriers are continually being set up, and this is where we play a role. We work to make sure that trade with Mexico, Canada and Asian countries remains open so as our domestic window shrinks, which it is doing, we will still have these foreign markets.”

Ott also agrees with Sambado that the market is indeed shrinking, and he pointed out that if another production area is late and California is early, its window shrinks even more.

He elaborated on some of the trade barriers the California apple industry faces today.

Mexico continues to have concerns with certain pests and diseases.

“We work to make sure that our fumigation program with Mexico is in order and that ensures them that everything we ship has been treated properly,” said Ott. “And we work to make sure that other countries that bring fruits — not just apples — into the U.S. do not have pests and diseases that could affect our crops, including apples.”

Yet another issue that previously affected the California apple industry was the starch iodine maturity standard. Ott explained that in the 1990s a standard was put into place in the state that prevented growers from harvesting Granny Smith apples until the starch and sugar met a certain level.

“This standard was based on consumers’ taste preferences,” he said. “But that shortened our market by two to four weeks, which is huge in relation to California’s window. We did some studies and found that consumers’ tastes change over time, and what they wanted back in the 90s is not necessarily what they want today. We were fortunate enough to work with the California Department of Food & Agriculture and succeeded in getting the standard lifted. Consumers now have a choice, and that has resulted in great success for our industry.”

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. Organizations that team up to utilize the same resources make great economic sense.

“The Blueberry Commission was formed four years ago,” Ott noted. “We 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 enables us to keep a handle on what is 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.”

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 between 95 and 98 percent of the country’s canned ripe olives.