Demand up, supply mixed for northeast apple growers, packers, shippers

Sorting inspector Josefina Hernandez checks for foreign material among the apples rolling along the line at the Empire Fruit Growers packing facility in Wolcott, N.Y. In the last couple years, Empire increased its capacity to bag apples with 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10-pound bags, and added more automation with an internal defect sorting equipment, said Rich Leous, general manager of the cooperative. “It’s certainly technology that pays off,” Leous said.
( Amy Sowder )

Northeastern apple growers, packers and marketers are enjoying good consumer demand this season, although the supply has been a mixed bag.

While the growing season was great for some, weather affected the harvest of other growers in different parts of the region. 

The overall U.S. apple crop is down this year, with the U.S. Apple Association reporting Dec. 1 fresh market holdings were 103.3 million cartons, down 16% from the same time a year ago.

The Northeast accounted for 8.64 million cartons in storage on Dec. 1, of which New York accounted for 74% of total Northeast remaining fresh apples. 

Counting both processing and fresh fruit, New York’s apple production was rated in August by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 30.9 million 42-pound cartons, unchanged from a year ago.

The USDA reported that Dec. 27 prices for New York size 80 gala apples were trading at $24 to $31 per carton, similar to the $29 to $34 per carton the same time a year ago.

Outlook

Hudson River Fruit Distributors, Milton, N.Y., did quite well, said Alisha Albinder, operations manager. 

“We had a bumper crop this year, so we’ll have ample supplies to carry us through the summer,” Albinder said. 

“The weather was very wet during the picking season, which made it more difficult to get out in the field to harvest. Overall, the rain toward the end of the season helped size up the crop.” 

By late December, all of Hudson River’s harvest was in cold storage, and the company plans to plant more fuji, gala and Pink Lady varieties, possibly in the new farm it bought last spring.

Other New Yorkers also experienced a great growing season — until a dry spell took over in July, the month for apples to grow large just before August harvest, said Jim Allen, vice president of marketing for New York Apple Sales Inc. 

Estimated at 30 million apples, the volume was higher than the previous year’s harvest, but the apple size was smaller, he said.

United Apple Sales workers
United Apple Sales workers sort the crop. By Amy Sowder

Empire Fruit Growers Co-Op Inc., Wolcott, N.Y., had its largest volume ever, at 750,000-800,000 bushels, said Rich Leous, general manager. 

“It was a good growing year for sure, which will keep us packing through June, and historically we’re done mid-May,” Leous said. 

Empire enjoyed a season of good pollination, sunny weather and basically no hail, but the dry spot in July caused some challenges in getting the size of apple marketers want, he said.

Still, demand has been so good that it didn’t slow down after Thanksgiving as it usually does.

Empire is focusing on growing more big-ticket items like the popular Honeycrisp, but they’re delicate, so it’s considering the use of controlled atmosphere storage so it can bring them out after the price bumps up February and March, when there’s less availability.

One of the cooperative’s owners, Wafler Farms Inc., also in Wolcott, is packing gala every day while growing a lot of Evercrisp, said Paul Wafler, who runs the orchard and nursery with his wife, Susan, and two sons, Jake and Kyle. Production of mcintosh and empire varieties is down a bit, but they’re getting re-ordered and are moving at stores, Paul Wafler said.

The five growers of Pomona Packing are seeing gala and fuji pick up. SnapDragons, a newer club variety, are doing well too, said Chris Hogan, Pomona’s assistant plant manager.

Pomona Packing apples float along their sorting lines.
Pomona Packing apples float along their sorting lines. By Amy Sowder

Like several others, Lake Ontario Fruit, Albion, N.Y., has a good crop with a smaller fruit size, and all the storage facilities are full, said John Russell, president and CEO.

The 2018 season produced 1.2 million bushels due to good growing weather, whereas in 2017, production was about 900,000 bushels, he said.

Niagara Fresh Fruit Co., a division of Bucolo Cold Storage in Burt, N.Y., is shipping a lot of empire apples to big fast-food chains, and Costco’s demand for red delicious is going strong, said Jake Baes, plant manager.

“Everything has been moving pretty well this year as far as volume, basically for all varieties really,” Baes said. Niagara goes through 500,000 to 750,000 bushels in year.

Brett Baker, sales manager for United Apple Sales, Lyndonville, N.Y., said the company is excited about SnapDragon, but also about how well its Honeycrisp did this year, which it was finishing emptying out from cold storage in mid- to late December. Then RubyFrost will come out of storage in January.

Pennsylvania grower-shipper-packers had different experiences.

Envy apples in Pennsylvania
Envy apples were sold in beautiful displays this season. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, Pa. 

Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., had so much rain that its apples are larger, and small fruit will be a challenge through the spring, said Brenda Briggs, Rice’s vice president of sales and marketing.

The unpredictable weather made deciding when to harvest difficult, and volume dropped a bit, which falls in line with the national trend, she said. Demand was so high in the fall and winter holiday season, that it’s been outpacing the company’s supplies, which it started harvesting in November. It expects to keep packing into summer.

Hess Bros. Fruit Co. 70 miles to the east in Lancaster, Pa., finished harvesting in early November and had a slightly higher supply than the previous year, said Andy Figart, sales and marketing manager.

“Our current estimate of our crop is pretty close to earlier in the year, while current national estimates are significantly lower than original projections,” Figart said.

For Hess, traditional varieties of Honeycrisp and gala have had very strong seasons so far with movement up from previous years.

Kiku, Honeycrisp, fuji, gala, golden delicious and mcintosh are all doing well for Rice. The Honeycrisp shipped in mid-August, making Rice one of the first companies to bring it to market this year, Briggs said.

“We had an absolutely beautiful start to the season; the Honeycrisp were sizing and coloring and eating very well,” Briggs said.

Then Gardners ended up with a bit too much rain after Labor Day, and the variety suffered from some cracking and loss as a result.

“Each region faces its own challenge, and collectively we will have to work together to keep retailers supplied through next season,” Briggs said.

See the inside of several New York apple packing plants here.

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