SEATTLE – First, warm spring weather in the Northeast and Midwest tricked apple trees into budding earlier. Then an untimely frost damaged the delicate blossoms.
For apple farmers in producing states like New York and Michigan, this has been a forgettable year, with severe declines in production of as high as 90 percent.
But it is amounting to a boon for Washington state growers, who are already in the midst of a near record harvest, and now looking forward to higher demand and prices for their produce.
"If we can get this fruit harvested, it's a perfect storm for Washington," said Todd Fryhover, president of the Apple Growers Association. "We could have a banner year for returns and profitability for our industry, but only time will tell."
Washington is likely to have a harvest of 108 million bushels, its second highest number on record, industry representatives said. A bushel is a 40-pound box of apples.
The main variables still looming: a possible shortage of pickers and unpredictable weather at the end of the harvest season.
Usually, Washington's apple farmers need about 40,000 workers to harvest their huge crop, said Kirk Mayer of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association. This year, Fryhover said, growers are reporting a shortage of roughly 10 to 15 percent shortage.
On a brighter note, this year's summer has been "perfect" with warm temperature and spring was mild with nearly no frosts, Fryhover said. "We're seeing our fruit's sizes get larger as harvest continues."
Just north of Wenatchee in central Washington, Orondo farmer Tom Auvil saw his orchards produce about a third more than expected. But he also was one of the farmers who got hit by hail earlier this spring and his workers had to use masks for weeks while a wildfire filled the area with smog. This year, it's shaping up to be a wash for him.
"Our industry is looking at capacity, folks are pretty anxious to ship fruit," said Auvil, who runs a relatively small operation at 50 acres. "You can't necessarily get over excited about pricing when you have a bountiful of fruits. But prices do look favorable."
Washington is the behemoth of the industry and could for 65 percent all the apples grown in the country this, up from its usual 50 to 60 percent range.
Nationally, the U.S. Apple Association projects the apple harvest will go down by 10 percent compared to last year to about 200 million bushels. Because the national crop is smaller, apple prices at retail are expected to be higher across the country, industry officials said.
"Growers are getting a bit more per bushels from the packers and shippers," said Mark Gedris, U.S. Apple Association spokesman.
New York harvested 30.7 million bushels last year, but will see less than half of that this year if estimates hold. Michigan, which has seen fluctuation over the past five years — saw a sharp drop, down to less than 3 million bushels this year from 28 million last year, according to grower associations.
Canada and Mexico are also not harvesting at top capacities, Fryhover said, putting Washington in a unique position.
While the apple industry expects prices to go up for consumers, it's too early to say by how much. There is usually a lag between harvest and apples on the supermarket counter.
So far the U.S. Department of Agriculture said U.S. retail prices for Red Delicious apples rose 1 percent in September to $1.524 per pound, from $1.505 in September 2011.
Generally, Washington apple farmers prefer selling their product to the fresh market, which brings higher returns.
This year's bad harvests in New York and Michigan could mean that Washington farmers could sell more of their apples to the processed and juice industries, which buy apples that are not savory enough for the fresh fruit market. On an average year, Michigan may sell about 60 percent of its harvest to the juice industry, Smith said.
Prices of the juice and processed market, however, are less than for the fresh market.
"There will be more apples shipped from Washington to processing on the East Coast than we've ever seen before," Mayer said.
The processed market can also look to Pennsylvania, which saw a healthy harvest, or Virginia to make up for the void left by New York and Michigan, Gedris said.
If apples aren't picked for the fresh market, growers have the option of leaving the fruit on trees, selling it at lower fresh market prices, or the juice market. But those options have to at least cover the costs of picking the apples, Mayer said.
About 20 percent of Washington's harvest usually goes to the juice and process markets, Mayer added. Of the fresh harvest, about a third is exported while the rest stays in the country.
Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes