Washington apples bounce back this year with good weather, lifted tariffs

WENATCHEE — The 2023 apple harvest was underway last month and the Washington State Tree Fruit Association estimates a full crop of around 134 million 40-pound boxes will be harvested this season.

Jon DeVaney, president of the association, said this year is a return to normal numbers after last year saw around 104 million boxes of apples harvested due to a cold spring.

“In 2021 during the summer we had the heat dome event that caused some damage to fruit then in 2022 we had that really cold, snowy weather during the spring when the trees were in bloom, so we had an unusually small crop,” DeVaney said. “We had been averaging 120 to 130 million boxes in the state from the five years or so before this last fall and so having a 104 million box harvest is a substantial decrease from our average. Coming back to the upper end of our average range is a return for normal for us and great news to have such a great production year.”

This year, the weather is on the growers side and has resulted not only in plentiful apples, but also easier picking.

“Our industry apple and pear tree growers all face labor challenges, having enough labor to grow and harvest our crops,” DeVaney said. “The fact that the weather has cooperated so far this harvest season means we have been able to get work done with the labor we have available, both domestically and through the guest worker, H-2A program.”

DeVaney explained sometimes the weather makes it hard to pick for workers.

“Some years we’ve had really high temperatures and it cuts short picking times during the day. Smoky conditions that make it hard to go out and have harvest activities; we haven’t had those kind of problems this year and that has contributed to a successful harvest so far.”

But the apple industry is celebrating more than mother nature this year.

In June, India agreed to remove an additional 20% tariff, that was placed on pulse crops and apples in 2019, within 90 days. The export of American pulse crops to the country has decreased from $180 million in 2017 to roughly $1 million. Washington apple exports have dropped from $120 million in 2017 to less than $1 million this year.

“I think it’s an important development and we’re really appreciative of getting that issue resolved,” DeVaney said. “The tariffs were on for such a long period of time that it’s going to take a while to try and earn some of that market share that’s been lost during that period. Some of our competitors had preferential access to that market during that time and if anyone knows, once…consumers or buyers change their behaviors, it takes a lot of effort to win them back.”

Last week, the Washington Apple Commission celebrated with Starr Ranch Growers and Oneonta Trading Corporation the first loading of Washington apple shipments to India.

In a press release, Washington Apple Commission president Todd Fryhover stated, “All Washington growers want is the opportunity to compete on equal terms in foreign markets. This shipment is significant because it symbolizes our ability to do that.”

Washington cherry growers faced market challenges this summer as a late bloom in California pitted the two states against each other and a flash bloom that saw cherries ripening in the same time gap. However, DeVaney said the apple season won’t face the same market challenge as the cherries did.

“The cherry industry faces different circumstances that are different from apples. Cherries need to be shipped as soon as they’re picked,” DeVaney said. “We don’t store cherries the way we do apples and pears and lot of the challenges we had this year was overlap with California’s lap and the compression when fruit was ripening in Washington state. Ideally you want your cherry season to spread out for a longer period of time. With apples going into storage, you have months up to a year to take those out of controlled atmosphere storage and bring them to market.”

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