Apple industry renews focus on domestic market
As summertime approaches, consumers begin to look to local markets for the parade of fresh fruits, and apple orchards buzz with preparations for the late summer harvest.
Last year, 122 million bushels were harvested in Washington, the nation’s leader in apple production.
It was a moderate crop compared to past years that have seen totals in the mid-130 million range.
“A lot of it had to do with the heat we had in June (2021),” said Todd Fryhover of the Washington Apple Commission, referring to the heat dome that settled over the region.
Contrast that with this spring 2022, which saw snow in mid-April.
“It didn’t get dramatically cold, but it certainly doesn’t take much to affect our crops,” he said. “We’re probably looking at a similar size crop (for 2022), depending on what happens with pollination weather.”
As the calendar flipped to 2022, it was clear the apple industry was seeing signs of improvement in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though working conditions are largely what they were pre-pandemic, adjusting to social distancing measures was a major hurdle.
Roughly 30,000 foreign workers come to Washington every year through the federal H-2A program to work in agriculture. This visa program allows farmers to recruit and hire from other countries to perform work on a seasonal basis.
“That fruit isn’t going to pick itself. Every single apple is picked by hand. … We need to do everything we need to do to take care of the labor force; if that means building more housing, buying more buses or paying higher wages, we’ve already committed to that fruit,” he said.
Fortunately for the industry, Fryhover said, “it doesn’t look like Covid is going to be as impactful as it was this time last year. We will continue to prioritize our workers’ safety and health.”
However, as the world continues to churn with the economic toll from the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s latest pandemic-driven lockdowns and other ongoing supply chain disruptions, challenges clearly still lie ahead for Washington’s apple growers.
Washington’s apples are enjoyed in 23 other countries around the world.
Fryhover said the state exports 30% of the apples, pears and other fruits it produces. Of the fruit that remains in the U.S., only 3% stays in Washington.
To get the fruit overseas poses logistical issues as shipping is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry this season.
“We still have vessels at anchor along the west and east coasts, more vessels off the coast of China … If you load a container and it doesn’t get picked up or sits waiting for two to three weeks, we’re dealing with a perishable commodity,” Fryhover said.
The financial risk escalates with rising shipping and other costs.
Fryhover said the system is strained even within the U.S. as freight rates to Florida were once $8,000 and are now $15,000. “You know what that’s like trying to pass it along to your customer,” he said.
“The third whammy is the cost of your inputs. Fertilizer and packaging expenses going up and then the 7% to 8% inflationary pressure. All these things are impacting the grower and the elasticity of price can only stretch so far,” he said.
The industry also is still struggling under retaliatory tariffs which add an additional 20% on top of the customary 50% in China and India. The tariffs were introduced during former President Donald Trump’s term in response to tariffs he placed on aluminum and steel coming from those countries.
Fryhover said he doesn’t see that changing under the Biden administration.
The European Union plus its neighboring eastern European countries make up the second largest apple production area in the world. With a damper on imports from Washington, other countries are stepping in to deliver. Fryhover said that apple orchards also are on the rise in India.
“In the great state of Washington, we do such a great job on tree fruit that we can compete on a quality level with anyone in the world … but we aren’t going to be able to compete on price,” he said.
Back on the homefront
Fryhover said this season will emphasize the importance of the domestic market, which consists of 500 million consumers across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico – 20% of U.S. apple exports go to Canada and Mexico.
On the homefront, the industry adjusted over the past couple of years to shifts in shopping habits.
As stores fine-tuned mobile shopping options to accommodate curbside pickup and delivery and people began making fewer, shorter trips to stores, packers started putting apples in bags of uniform weight.
“The industry is so resilient,” Fryhover said. “Our packing lines are set up to do trade packs, not bags, and so we’ve really had to come up with creative methodologies to get more fruit into the bags for domestic retail. Some have been able to buy machinery for bags, others are doing it with labor.”
Even as mask mandates have lifted around the country and the pace of life has largely returned to normal, Fryhover said bagging is here to stay and will probably even increase over time.
“Shrinkage goes to zero,” he said, referring to the rate of retail theft. “Brands can use high resolution graphics. The message is on the bag and so they can promote themselves more.”
The commission and the Washington apple industry continue to promote the proprietary Cosmic Crisp variety, developed by Washington State University. The sweet juicy variety is allowed to be grown in Washington for the first 10 years of its patent.
Fryhover said one of the industry’s objectives is to find new markets for Cosmic Crisp.
“We are concentrating our efforts mostly in California,” he said.
He said Cosmic Crisp is best promoted using product samples handed out at retailers, which ceased for most of the pandemic.
“It’s starting to come back, but that’s been one of our major challenges,” he said.
Overall, his outlook for this growing season is optimistic.
“We just have to take those challenges facing us and turn them into opportunities,” he said.