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Gregoria Zapata is ready to pull bins of apples out of a Madera County orchard

Apple growers look at improved 2010

Gala apple crop looking strong. The next apple off the tree – the Granny Smith – is looking good as well. California’s strong point — high quality apples earlier.

Lance Shebelut was seeing red.

But that’s a good thing when you’re looking at a crop of Gala apples that has color shoppers want, thanks to a cooler summer in the San Joaquin Valley.

For Shebelut, who grows apples in Madera County, and many other California apple growers, it was among the good news for the 2010 crop that will help make up for what many are calling a terrible year for the state’s apples in 2009.

Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission in Fresno, puts it this way: “Last year was a disaster, probably the worst apple year in the state’s history.”

A number of factors combined to account for that grim year in which just over 2.2 million cartons were shipped (Ott is expecting shipments to total 3 million 40-pound cartons this year.) Ott listed some of the factors: exotic pests that caused export partners to bristle, holdover of fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, a warm spring and hot summer, fruit that did not size well, a shrinking economy and low prices.

The Gala is the first apple to come off trees in California and its season is limited. The 2008 California Gala crop sold out in three weeks; the 2009 crop did not last much longer and that’s just fine with Ott.

“We want to maintain that niche,” he said, “Pick it, pack it, ship it fresh.”                 

Atomic Torosian, managing partner with Crown Jewels Marketing in Fresno, said, “The California deal is a small window compared to the Northwest.”

He expects his company, which is the marketing arm of Courtland-based Green & Hemly Inc., will handle about 60,000 cartons of Galas this year, about 450,000 cartons of all California varieties.

He said the Galas peaked at 100s and 113, “about right for a Gala apple” and that they colored “extremely well.”

Shebelut said this was “the coolest summer I can remember in 22 years.” It meant he did not have to run sprinklers in his orchard to cool the Galas in order to bring out the red. It also meant better sizes and a harvest that was later by about two weeks.

Getting the fruit to redden is a key.

“Shoppers buy with their eyes,” Shebelut said.

Among the ways of tricking Mother Nature into producing an apple with more red is summer pruning to let light in, a tricky prospect because removal of too much foliage can cause sunburn.

Shebelut also puts reflective Mylar plastic on the orchard floor in places to bounce light into the tree and enhance coloring. But it also intensifies heat. He said his work crews start at dawn and are often finished by noon or 1 p.m., an optimum time to get the best fruit while avoiding heat stress.

Granny Smith crop looking good

Not only did the state’s Galas look good this year, the next apple off the tree – the Granny Smith – is looking good as well, said Andy Poteete, a salesman with Bidart Bros. Marketing Inc. in Bakersfield, which handles about 800,000 cartons a year.

“The cooler weather is helping,” Poteete said.                 

Jeff Colombini, a Lodi grower and research chairman for the the California Apple Commission, said efforts are under way to try to develop a more objective standard for maturity for the Granny Smith, a green apple.

Right now, county agricultural commissioners use a starch iodine test to arrive at maturity levels to determine when the Granny Smith is ready to be picked. Colombini said there is some subjectivity in that approach.

Colombini added that this year’s fruit quality is “excellent, it’s coloring and sizing well and it has excellent fruit finish, meaning there are fewer blemishes on the apple surface than normal. That means there’s not as much sorting this year.”

Colombini finds it irksome that apples harvested months ago are still coming into stores from the Southern Hemisphere at lower prices because “we have no freight advantage.”

“Stores can get fresh apples just off the tree, but some retailers are strictly cost buyers,” he said.

Oscar Ramirez, a sales representative for Trinity Fruit Sales in Fresno, said that is driving down some prices paid growers, which he said have peaked around $35 a carton for Galas. Ott termed the price “average.”

Steve Blizzard, who chairs the board of directors for the Apple Commission and who is director of farm operations for the Lagomarsino Group in Visalia, said the advantage posed by the early entry of Galas and Fujis “before Washington state” is considerable.

“That’s California’s strong point — high quality apples earlier,” he said. “I think if buyers are educated properly, they will prefer fresh fruit over fruit stored 10 or 11 months.”

Apples are a labor intensive crop, and research is under way to try to find ways to reduce the costs. Ott pointed out that steps to production include pulling leaves, thinning fruit, pruning and picking by hand.

In addition to coming up with varieties that can extend the season, Colombini said, the Commission is looking into production of “larger, higher quality apples at lower cost.”

Galas comprise 31 percent of California production, Ott said. The Granny Smith accounts for 51 percent. The Fuji, the third variety to be harvested, amounts to 12 percent, and the Cripps Pink, which follows Fuji, accounts for about 5 percent. Other varieties make up the remaining 1 percent.

Sixty-three percent of the apple crop in California is shipped outside the state, nearly a quarter of it to other countries. Ott said 35 percent to 40 percent remains in California.

Apple industry stabilization

Ott believes the industry has stabilized in recent years, saying, “There are no longer the dramatic surges.”

He thinks it has found its niche as an earlier supplier of fresh fruit and “those that are in are in [after some recent trying years], and those that are out are out.”

“It won’t be a 10-million box market as it was in the early 1990s,” Ott said.

He would like to see production year-to-year ranging between 3 and 4.5 million cartons.

Apples are grown from as far south as San Diego to as far north as Ukiah. Most of the crop is grown from Sacramento south to Kern County.

The Apple Commission, like some other marketing orders, has focused in recent years on research, pests and diseases and – in Ott’s words – providing “a unified industry voice.” It has turned away from generic promotion.

In addition, Ott wears other hats besides being executive director for the Apple Commission. He also manages the 3-month-old California Blueberry Commission, a state marketing order, and the California Olive Commission, a federal marketing order.

Ott said that’s a way of saving money because he is able to speak out at meetings, for example, where the different commodity boards face common issues, such as pest and disease concerns, trade issues and market access.

“If there’s a problem, for example, with an issue with Mexico, I can speak for three commodity groups,” he said. “It saves in travel and staff and on rent, and we’re careful to keep everything separate with three separate boards of directors.”

For a time, Ott also managed the California Kiwifruit Commission as it reorganized following an audit.

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