It is apple harvest time again in Washington State, albeit about two weeks earlier than normal in most places. This will be a large crop overall, and probably a record crop for organic apples. The projection is for a harvest of just over 11 million 40-pound boxes of organic apples. At 88 apples per box (a typical size), that’s over 950 million organic apples. And while this sounds like a lot, if everyone in the US (say, 300 million people) ate one apple a day, that supply would be gone in less than four days. Still, demand is growing by around 10-12% per year, according to the annual surveys done by the Organic Trade Association. Based on data from grocery store sales, apples are the number two fresh fruit sold by value (behind berries) for both conventional and organic. A major food retailer reported that their sales of organic apples increased nearly 50% in 2015 over the previous year, a huge jump. And average organic apple prices received by growers hit record highs last season. The total value of the packed organic apples was just under $400 million, with 70% or more going directly to growers. This is a substantial contribution to the state’s economy.
Worldwide, organic apples represent about 1.7% of all apple acres. In contrast, organic makes up nearly 10% of apple acres in Washington. The area of certified organic apples peaked in 2009 at 15,735 acres and then experienced a small decline for several years as many orchards were removed and replanted with newer varieties in more productive, high-density systems. In 2015 there were 14,200 certified organic apple acres with well over 3,000 acres in transition, perhaps as high as 10,000 acres. Thus organic apple production is about to take another jump. In addition, average yields which were often in the 40 bin per acre range are now commonly 60-70 bins per acre in the new plantings. Some industry spokespersons have speculated that organic could account for 20-25% of apple production in the state in a few years, and the acre and yield data support this. This would represent one of the highest levels of organic share (the percent of all acres or production of a crop in organic management) anywhere in the country for an important food crop.
Based on two studies by WSU economists Suzette Galinato and Karina Gallardo, the cost of organic apple production is about 12% more than “conventional” when considering total costs. Assuming slightly lower yields (8% less) and substantially higher prices (45% more), net return to the organic grower is $7,900 per acre more than conventional, a whopping 270% increase. And in fact organic prices have been 90-100% higher than conventional, making the economics even more attractive. Thus, it is no surprise that we are seeing many more acres shifting to organic production.
One of the biggest changes is in the mix of apple varieties. ‘Gala’ and ‘Fuji’ account for 50% of the organic apple area, while ‘Red Delicious’ remains the largest single “conventional” variety. ‘Honeycrisp’ is the rising star, with production skyrocketing from 29,000 boxes for the 2006 crop to over 600,000 boxes shipped for the 2015 crop and more expected this year. Sales of Cripps Pink/Pink Lady doubled in 2015. Many other new varieties, such as ‘Jazz’, ‘SweeTango’, ‘Ambrosia’, and ‘Pinova’ are being grown organically and becoming more available in stores. In a few years, the WSU-developed ‘Cosmic Crisp’ may be available as an organic choice.
Many of the challenges for apple production in Washington are the same for organic and conventional: labor shortages; more heat stress on the trees and fruit; water shortages; expanded or new pest and disease problems; and loss of fruit during storage. Growers, fruit companies, and researchers are all working on solutions. For example, experiments with the use of overhead netting (Brendon Anthony’s blog topic last week) to reduce sun and heat damage on orchards are leading to promising results that growers can adopt – at a cost, of course. But an investment in netting can provide multiple benefits that make the practice a viable economic choice. Sunburn, which can damage 20-25% of the apples, is dramatically reduced. Netting can prevent most hail damage, where one hailstorm causes losses far greater than the netting cost. Fine-mesh netting is available that can exclude certain pests, such as the newly arrived brown marmorated stink bug for which there are no viable organic controls. Trees may grow better and yield more under the net, and use less water at the same time. Thus, new orchards will look increasingly different from the big apple trees of the 1960s or 1980s. A challenge yet to be fully addressed is the recycling or re-use of the array of inputs required by modern orchards, including plastic irrigation pipe, treated posts, trellis wire, reflective ground cloth, and now netting.
Look for some freshly picked Washington organic apples and take a bite of this organic success story brought to you by the growers, fruit companies, researchers and others who make great food possible. And check out the annual report on organic tree fruit in Washington State and beyond that contains these and many other facts about this key segment of organic agriculture in our state. Find it HERE.