Washington produces about 58% of the apples grown in the United States, and 68% of those grown for fresh consumption (US Ag. Stat., 2010) Bearing apple acreage in Washington is estimated at about 168,500 acres, about 3,000 acres of apple orchards are non-bearing.
During 2007-2011, production averaged about 130,000,000 “bushels,” with an average of 100,000,000 packed boxes sold as fresh, and 30,000,000 bushels (boxes) processed yearly. (Bushel = about 44 lbs-20Kg.)
Value of Washington apples sold as fresh or processed product is estimated at about $2.5 billion USD yearly.
About 30 percent of the crop is exported yearly, with major markets in the Asian Pacific Rim, Canada, Mexico, and South America.
The cash cost of production of an acre of apples is about $5200 to $7400, depending on a number of common orchard variables. Other economic costs add thousands to this. Greatest expenses are labor for picking, pruning and hand fruit thinning. Packing and marketing costs an additional $5,600 to $7,500 per average acre of production, about half of which is labor costs.
Red Delicious once dominated the production, constituting as much as 70% of the apples sold in the mid-1990’s. Golden Delicious was second, at about 20 percent.
The cultivar mix has changed dramatically between 1990 and 2010. While Red Delicious is still has the greatest share of production, it has receded to 30% of production, followed by Gala (now being converted to strains with a greater degree of redness) at about 20%, Fuji (also being converted to higher coloring strains) 13%, Grannie Smith, at 11%, Golden Delicious constitutes 8% and is declining, and the remainder including Braeburn (declining, rapidly), Cripps Pink (increasing slowly), Jonagold, Cameo (declining) and about 4 percent of the crop described as “other,” which includes an increasing production of the more popular “club” varieties..
Older apple orchards were most often the Red or Golden Delicious variety planted about 110 trees to the acre (275/ha). Each tree was about 18 feet wide, and 14 feet high, which made pruning, spraying, hand fruit thinning, and picking difficult and labor intensive. These trees are being removed when the they are no longer profitable. The rate of removal and orchard replanting greatly increased in the 1990’s, and especially in 1998 and 1999. Newer orchards are more likely to be varieties such as Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Cameo, “club varieties” or any apple variety that promises reasonable economic returns to the grower. Most of these new varieties are more sensitive to diseases such as powdery mildew and fire blight than the varieties they replaced. These new orchards are always planted more intensively, most on M9 dwarfing rootstock, supported by a “V” or upright trellis, and planted with 1200 to 1800 trees per acre. Production sometimes starts in the second season after planting, and full production may be attained in the fourth or fifth year of growth. “Non-bearing” pesticide labels now usually relate only to the first season or two after planting. Trees in this intensive style of orchard are usually about 2-3 feet wide and 10 feet tall, which eases labor and improves spray material coverage. As sprayed product rates are usually set in relation to very large trees, growers and advisors often question how specific product rates must be adjusted to relate to the lighter foliage and superior coverage common in trellised blocks.
Fruit must be thinned every Spring to assure yearly production and allow for acceptable fruit quality. Chemical thinners are used during and shortly after the bloom period to prevent fruit set, or to remove fruit that will set in clusters. The remainder of the thinning is done by hand during June and early July , with crews spending about 25-60 hours of labor per acre removing poor quality, insect or disease damaged, or too-closely spaced fruit.
Washington apples are grown in a moderate, marine influence, desert climate, where the scant rainfall occurs in the winter months. The dry, sunny growing season weather gives growers the advantage of low disease pressure, but requires them to irrigate regularly during the growing season. The average orchard requires about 3.5 acre feet of water per season, most of which must be applied during mid-Summer, when mountain snow-melt maintains plentiful stream flows. The total of all crop irrigation in the Pacific Northwest states constitutes less than five percent of the available Columbia River watershed water supply. Only the smallest streams are significantly reduced in flow volume (in the late summer) by irrigation water withdrawal. Irrigation, at times, complicates pest management by triggering disease infection in specific blocks, or removing protectant materials too soon after application. Over-irrigation constitutes a leaching potential for nitrates or other easily-leached products applied to the orchard. (More Irrigation Information)
The most common fertilizer used in Washington apples is nitrogen. Over-use of nitrogen causes serious fruit quality degradation, so is rare. Most growers apply between 0 and 60 pounds of actual N per season, the rate dependant on appearance of the trees, fruit, and leaf analysis. The desert soils in the region also have very little available Zinc or Boron. Most other major mineral nutrients are common in the soil, and specific deficiencies of potassium, copper, and phosphorus may be treated if found to be necessary by soil and foliage tests.
Orchards are replaced about every 18-25 years, as cultivars or varieties become less popular, or trees are excessively damaged by severe winters. It costs about $12,000-19,000 to renovate an acre of orchard. Changing orchards to new varieties may lead to poor economic returns due to Specific Replanting Disease unless the soil is carefully fumigated prior to replanting. This replanting problem is especially serious in the older production regions where “family farms” predominate.
Low disease pressure from apple scab, and the absence of some key pests, such as Plum Curculio and Apple Maggot, allow Washington growers to produce apples under organic methods relatively successfully. The key pest, Codling Moth, forced many potential growers out of organic production, until pheromone confusion, a virus sprayed for specifically this pest, and proper timing of Summer oil sprays brought the pest under better control. Despite improved control materials, this pest continues to be the key insect problem in organic orchards.
In order to sell fruit as organically produced, growers must pay Washington State Department of Agriculture inspection fees, and maintain their orchard under approved organic production methods for at least three years. The transition period is a financial hardship, as fruit must be sold as conventional label, though cost of production is often significantly increased by following organic production methods. This is the major impediment to growers who might wish to try organic production.
About 7.7 million boxes of Washington-grown organic apples were sold through conventional market channels of the2009 crop. Many organically produced apples that do not meet the highest grade and size standards are sold as conventional (non-organic) fruit. Acreage fully certified as organic has increased significantly over the past 15 years, from 1800 in 1997 to about 13,400 in 2008. There was an additional 3800 acres of apples in “transition” into the full organic certification. This increase, and further potential for increase, in production has led to what appears to be an over-supply of the more abundant cultivars, and a subsequent significant decline in economic returns to the growers.
The adoption of non-conventional soil, tree nutrient and pest management practices is reported by organic growers to be significantly more expensive and labor intensive than conventional production methods. If market prices do not support organic production methods, many growers may be forced to leave the program.