Apple harvest forecast downgraded a bit

Sigifredo Ramirez thins a Fuji apple tree at Gilbert Orchards near Wapato last month. This year's harvest forecast has been downgraded after a Yakima-area windstorm caused some fruit damage earlier this month.

YAKIMA — Labor Day’s wild weather was an ill wind for some apple growers.

While most of the Gala crop had been harvested, growers say the wind battered some of the fruit, possibly pushing it to either lower grades or the cull pile.

“It looked like you put them in a brown paper bag and drove around with them in the back seat,” said Travis Allan with Naches-based Allan Brothers Fruit Co.

As a result, the Washington Apple Commission is downgrading its initial forecast that this year’s apple harvest would slightly exceed 2019’s. The new forecast puts it below last year’s.

Washington’s apple growers, who lead the nation in fruit production, were expected to harvest 134 million boxes this year, up 1 million from 2019, said Toni Lynn Adams, communications outreach specialist with the Washington Apple Commission.

But with the high winds damaging apples and trellises, she said the commission is predicting a 5-10% reduction on its initial forecast — between 6.7 million and 13.4 million 40-pound boxes fewer.

“That is about the average reduction growers are observing,” Adams said.

The commission anticipated significant growth in organic apples, at 21 million boxes compared to 15 million the previous season. But Adams said the number that is packed as organic could be less, as growers have the option to pack the organically grown apples as either organic or non-organic.

Another growth area for Washington apples is the Cosmic Crisp, a Washington State University-created hybrid that made its sales debut last year. Adams said the forecast is for 1.6 million boxes to be collected, compared to 346,000 in 2019.

For a second year in a row, Gala apples are expected to be the top-harvested apple in the state, supplanting the Red Delicious, Adams said.

Galas are typically the first apples to be harvested, as they fully ripen by mid-August.

Allan and Brad Klingle, a grower in Prosser, said their crops were looking good, and most of their Galas had been picked by the time high winds hit the Yakima Valley on Labor Day, with sustained speeds of 30 mph and gusts up to 45 mph in places.

Honeycrisps appeared to take the brunt of the damage, the orchardists said, with some damage to Pink Ladies and Jazz, which are harvested later in the season.

Allan and Klingle put apple damage at about 10% on the ground, with some fruit in the trees sustaining scuffs and bruises. Klingle said the cosmetic damage could cause the apples to be downgraded from premium, meaning less money for them.

Another factor is smoke, which cuts down the light getting to the apples, and with air quality deemed hazardous, orchardists are pulling workers from the field until conditions improve, Adams said, delaying the harvest.

Allan said there is a potential silver lining to the smoke: the diffused sunshine is less likely to cause sunburn on the apples.

And, with cooler temperatures coming, Allan said the apples should get more color by the time they are harvested.

Weather was not the only factor affecting Washington apples. Like everything else, the coronavirus pandemic has affected some shipments and marketing strategy, Adams said.

“The global pandemic has affected our markets one way or another,” Adams said. “In March, it was shipping logistics. The ports were opened, but it got slowed down a little bit.”

With people staying home and cooking more than they did pre-coronavirus, the commission had to change its marketing tack, emphasizing the apples as a nutritional product that lends itself to snacking, baking and even smoothies.

“We just want to make sure people are aware and can get creative,” Adams said.