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Warm fall helps push larger-than-anticipated Washington apple harvest

Octavio Torres a longtime worker of Feil Fruit poses for a photo at his fruit stand on Thursday, October 19, 2017, at Feil Pioneer Fruit Stand in Orondo, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A warm fall and new planting technologies gave Washington apple growers a larger harvest than anticipated this season.

In August, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association estimated the state would produce 131 million 40-pound boxes of fresh apples. That number was based on what growers had planted pre-harvest. By Oct. 1, that estimate had grown to 140 million, after the state’s Golden Delicious, Gala and Honeycrisp crops were harvested.

Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, believes the higher than anticipated yield is due to new planting technologies leading to greater per-acre yields.

“I think we as an industry don’t really have a way to anticipate the volume on these new blocks,” he said.

Fryhover believes that almost all Washington growers will wrap up harvest within two weeks.

The modern apple orchard has narrower rows to accommodate shorter, denser orchards. In the past, there might be 300 to 400 apple trees per acre. Now, with changes in technology and horticulture, farmers can get 1,500 to 2,000 trees per acre, Fryhover said.

As farmers plant these new, more efficient rows, there is an adjustment period. The first two years after the trees are planted, they won’t produce any fruit for harvest. By year three, they will produce some. But between years three and four, the trees’ production can jump significantly.

“It could easily double between year three and year four,” Fryhover said.

Fryhover believes that’s the “major component” in 2017’s larger-than-expected harvest.

The other contributing factor was a warm September and October.

“The weather in September and October was fantastic,” Fryhover said.

That weather gave the state’s apples a final boost going into the fall harvest.

The international market also appears promising for Washington growers, Fryhover said. Europe’s crop is expected to be down 20 percent after a cold spring and hailstorms. Mexico’s crop is expected to be down 30 percent and Canada’s is down by 5 percent.

That means there will be fewer apples competing for export customers. And, China, the world’s largest apple grower, is still unable to export to India, one of Washington’s top customers.

“India in the last five years has really come on with some serious volume,” Fryhover said.

And finally, a cool spring meant Washington’s apples didn’t grow as large as in years past. That’s a good thing, Fryhover said, because international customers tend to like smaller apples.

And while President Donald Trump’s administration continues to debate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Fryhover said any changes that do happen likely won’t affect the 2017 export crop.

“If there are changes, and quite honestly we hope that there are not, it probably will be the 2018 crop,” he said.