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Apple forecast up; labor, trade worries remain

Apple producers from around the nation foresee a slightly larger national apple crop this year.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on June 26, 2018 11:53AM

Limbs cut for fire blight are piled in an Okanogan, Wash., orchard, June 6. An early estimate of Washington’s 2018 apple crop is down partly due to fire blight while the national estimate is up.

Dan Wheat/Capital Press

Limbs cut for fire blight are piled in an Okanogan, Wash., orchard, June 6. An early estimate of Washington’s 2018 apple crop is down partly due to fire blight while the national estimate is up.

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The first forecast for this fall’s U.S. apple crop is up 3.6 percent from the 2017 crop, which should be manageable, but big concerns linger about labor, fruit quality and exports, a top Michigan apple producer says.

Total U.S. fresh and processed production was estimated at 257.9 million, 42-pound boxes at the Premier Apple Cooperative meeting in Syracuse, N.Y., on June 26.

The USDA unadjusted figure for 2017 is 248.6 million boxes and the large 2014 crop was 272.2 million boxes, while the record was 277.3 million boxes in 1998.

“We have a couple factors impacting this season’s marketability. No. 1 is whether we have sufficient labor to pick on a timely basis to give us the quality we need, and the other issue is trade, that our biggest trading partners are or will be instituting tariffs,” said Don Armock, president of Riveridge Produce, Sparta, Mich., who attended the New York meeting.

Lack of immigration reform, including resolving DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals), and increased immigration enforcement all weigh heavily on the immigrant community who make up most of the tree fruit workforce, Armock said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on a meat packing plant in the upper Midwest and President Donald Trump’s tweets about swift deportations unsettle the labor force, he said.

As in Washington state, more large and mid-size apple growers in Michigan and New York are turning to H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers, he said.

“We can’t be taking chances on (domestic) workers who may or may not be legal,” he said.

Unless resolved soon, tariffs by Mexico, Canada, India and China in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, undoubtedly will affect U.S. apple exports, Armock said. It is unknown to what degree, he said. Typically, 30 percent of U.S. apples are exported.

Mexico is imposing a 20 percent tariff on U.S. apples, India is adding 25 percent on top of 50 percent, China added 15 percent to a 10 percent existing tariff and will impose another 25 percent July 6 in retaliation for U.S. tariffs related to intellectual property theft. Canada has not set any tariff on apples.

“When you insult (Canadian Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau like we have, people take a bit of an anti-American stance,” Armock said.

Of the 257.9 million-box Premier estimate, Washington is 152 million boxes, down 4.9 percent; Michigan, 33.5 million, up 43.1 percent; New York, 31 million, up 7.8 percent; Pennsylvania, 11.7 million, up .3 percent; California, 5.5 million, up .4 percent; and Virginia, 5.1 million, down 2.2 percent.

Oregon is 4.2 million, up .8 percent and Idaho is 1.5 million, up 19 percent.

The Washington estimate is down partly because of a higher level of fire blight, said Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va.

Bruce Grim, manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association, said there were also holes at bloom time. He said the fresh crop should be in the mid-130 million boxes which seems to be a new normal.

Barring any weather disasters, fruit size could be pretty ideal, which would be good because it was down one to two sizes in 2017, up two sizes in 2016 and down one to two sizes in 2015, Grim said.

“We haven’t hit the sweet spot in three years and that creates marketing challenges,” he said.

Armock said Michigan and New York estimates are up. Crops didn’t get the spring frost damage they did a year ago and because warm weather during cell division means better chance of good fruit size.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association will forecast the Washington crop in early August and U.S. Apple will give a national crop estimate at its annual Outlook conference in Chicago, Aug. 23-24.


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