By Chris Torres and Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
“I've never seen apples as large and red on Oct. 1 as I have in western New York this year,” says Jim Allen, spokesman for New York Apple Sales Inc. in Glenmont, which distributes apples from each of the state’s major growing regions. “We’re in great shape this year.”
Brenda Briggs, business manager for Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., one of the largest fruit packers on the East Coast, also feels good about this year’s apple harvest.
“This year’s harvest is really nice. Last year, if you live in Pennsylvania, it was a disastrous year for weather,” she says. This year, though, “quality is excellent, eating flavor is fantastic — lots of things to be thankful for.”
New York and Pennsylvania are in the top 10 of apple-producing states in the country — New York is No. 2 and Pennsylvania is No. 4 — although both states are dwarfed by Washington state, which produces nearly 65% of the country’s apples.
Western New York harvest may be smaller, but apples are larger
Allen says that while apples are larger in western New York this year, the size of the harvest may be smaller than in the eastern part of the state. The heavy crop last year, he says, along with drought late last year, stressed the trees.
“That shows up the next spring,” he says. “But on the good side, we’ve had excellent moisture, sun and cold nights.
“The sugar and acid levels are spot-on,” he adds.
Allen says the most popular varieties are Gala, Honeycrisp, SweeTango, Snapdragon, Fuji and newcomer Koru, which is a Fuji-Braeburn cross from New Zealand.
Allen described it as “dense, crunchy and a tinge of honey flavor to it, with a nice after-flavor.”
Evercrisp is another up-and-coming apple, he says.
Photo courtesy of New York Apple Sales Inc.
BIGGER AND BRIGHTER: A worker at New York Apple Sales Inc. sorts apples during packing. The company says apples are larger this year, especially in the western part of New York.
Consumer preferences changing
Shifts in consumer preferences show certain apple traits are becoming more desirable.
“Flavor and crunch are driving consumer preferences,” he says. “The older varieties that don’t exhibit that crunch aren’t as popular as the newer varieties.”
Softer, less tart apples such as Golden Delicious have fallen out of favor. Crunchy varieties usually have a sweet but tart flavor, and are more compact.
John Russell, general manager and partner at Lake Ontario Fruit Inc., a packing house in Albion, N.Y., says he’s also anticipating a good harvest.
“This year, we’re seeing probably one of the cleanest, highest-quality crops we’ve seen in a long time,” he says. “We have great coloring, size and weather during harvest.”
This summer provided the moisture and sunlight apples need for size.
“As we get closer to harvest, we’re getting cool evenings, which give us high color,” he says. “The flavor is excellent. Everything is very good varietal flavor on everything we’ve seen so far. We have plenty of larger-sized fruit this year, and we’re excited about getting it to market.”
Briggs says the company’s growers — the Rice family grows 900 acres’ worth and packs apples from 35 other growers — are about 60% through harvest, with early varieties like Ginger Gold, Gala and Honeycrisp already done. Granny Smiths and Fuji apples are up next to be harvested.
Briggs says more of their apples are going to grocery stores — which is usually good news, since the fresh market will garner higher prices than processed apples.
But the current trade conflict, most notably with China, is driving down grower income.
According to an August report by the U.S. Apple Association, farm-gate income fell 16% in 2018 amid growing trade tensions and higher tariffs from exporting countries.
The value of apple exports fell 22% to $854 million in 2018. The Trade Mitigation Program purchased $83 million worth of fresh apples, according to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service officials.
Washington state exports 30% of its total crop. Briggs says that affects East Coast growers because those apples are sold domestically, which drives down overall prices. She expects the company will export some apples to India, Central America and South America this year.
Gala still tops
Gala and Honeycrisp apples are increasing in production as the industry adapts to consumer preferences, according to the U.S. Apple Association.
The top apple varieties are Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith.
If current trends continue, Honeycrisp could surpass Fuji in apple production by next year, according to the association.
Sergeant writes from central New York.