Washington's apple harvest up to two-weeks behind, poses some frost concern for later-maturing varieties, but growers optimistic; early production estimate puts crop at 106 million boxes

YAKIMA, Washington , September 20, 2011 () – It's getting to be a common thread for Yakima Valley agriculture in 2011. Like so many crops before it, the apple harvest is late, in some cases as much as two weeks.

At Yakima Valley Orchards northeast of here, pickers just started making the first of what will be two passes of color-picking of Gala apples, selecting the reddest fruit now and leaving the remaining to gain color before the next round.

Travis Allan, 35, president of Yakima Valley Orchards, which is affiliated with Allan Bros. Fruits of Naches, said although harvest is behind, at least it's started.

"We are getting into the full swing of harvest," Allan said.

The late start poses some concern for frost for later-maturing varieties like Cripps Pink, also known as Pink Lady, and Fuji. But for the most part growers and their representatives are optimistic.

"The weather has been good for finishing up this crop and turning out well," observed Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association. "The anxiety is we aren't sure we can count on the cold weather holding off."

An early production estimate pegged this year's crop at about 106 million boxes.

The current harvest at Yakima Valley Orchards is in a high-density Gala orchard with about 1,300 trees per acre. The trees are planted 4 feet apart and must be supported by a trellis because the trees have weak root systems that focus more energy on producing fruit.

Allan calls this a two-dimensional design, with the trunk growing upward and limbs tied to wires at a 90-degree angle from the trunk. The design provides more fruiting surface than conventional plantings.

The orchard also is an example of the ever-changing face of the Washington apple industry. While growers are reducing acreage they are planting more trees per acre. The likely result is a production increase.

Those trends are highlighted in the recently completed 2011 tree census, funded by the industry and conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

From a peak of about 192,000 acres a decade ago, the industry now grows apples on 167,000 acres.

The number of trees per acre is increasing in all major apple-producing counties. In Yakima County's 51,000 acres, the average number of trees per acre -- 483 -- is 28 percent higher than the last census five years ago.

The variety mix also is changing. While still king, Red Delicious accounts for about 25 percent of acreage. Gala and Fuji continue to increase in share while Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Braeburn, and Jonagold are declining.

Space devoted to the new industry sweetheart, Honeycrisp, has doubled to more than 9,000 acres in the last five years.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House Association, spearheaded the effort to conduct the census and a large number of industry organizations cooperated.

Kelly said having up-to-date information on acreage, densities and varieties is a good planning tool for the industry.

"The industry now is planting and replanting on a regular basis. We need to measure that the right varieties are being planted," Kelly said. "It's good to substantiate what we thought was happening. We weren't totally sure."

The association tracks movement and prices on behalf of its grower members.

A gradual shift to higher density plantings is a way to get earlier production and cover the higher operating costs. Allan estimates industrywide, the cost to put in a high-density orchard can be as high as $40,000 an acre. The figure includes all establishment costs, including land.

At such a high cost, early production is critical. High-density orchards can achieve production in three years compared to at least five years for a conventional orchard.

"More apples per tree sooner," said Allan, a third-generation grower. "That is the name of the game."

Beyond early production, these plantings offer other advantages. Ruben Canalas, ranch foreman has been with Allan Bros. for 30 years, said the savings on labor is significant.

"One of the benefits is you can do most of the work from the ground," he said.

The Yakima Valley Orchards Gala block has been in existence since 1991. Across an orchard road is a planting of 2-year-old Jazz apples, another new variety. Some miles away, a new block of a variety called Envy is in its second year.

Allan said the company is always analyzing production and quality from its orchard blocks and making decisions about replacing trees or grafting new varieties onto existing rootstocks.

DeVaney said the evolution of the apple industry is necessary if growers are to compete in a global market.

"Everyone is very much aware that continuing improvement is necessary to stay competitive," he said.

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