Early market benefits apple growers


Issue Date: August 9, 2017
By Ching Lee
Employees at Riverbend Orchards in Ripon harvest Gala apples, the earliest commercial variety to hit the fresh market. California farmers fill an important market niche by offering the nation’s first fresh-picked apples of the season, about a month before the state of Washington, the country’s largest apple producer.
Photo/Ching Lee
San Joaquin County farmer Steve Chinchiolo, right, and his son Alex walk through one of their newer apple orchards, in which the trees are shorter and planted in higher density to allow easier picking and management.
Photo/Ching Lee
More than 300 people attended a fundraising dinner Friday in Modesto on behalf of FARM PAC®, the California Farm Bureau Fund to Protect the Family Farm. Speakers at the event included House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
Photo/Dave Kranz
More than 300 people attended a fundraising dinner Friday in Modesto on behalf of FARM PAC®, the California Farm Bureau Fund to Protect the Family Farm. The dinner was co-hosted by the county Farm Bureaus in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Sacramento, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tuolumne counties. The dinner featured local foods—some cooked featuring bourbon from Modesto-based Do Good Distillery—plus live and silent auctions.
Photo/Dave Kranz

By being the first ones on the scene, California apple growers say their crop continues to fill an important market niche, even as the state's acreage has declined.

During a three- to four-week window—after imports from the Southern Hemisphere diminish and before the state of Washington ramps up its harvest later this month—the Golden State offers the nation's first fresh-picked apples of the season.

"We fill a void in the marketplace," San Joaquin County grower Jeff Colombini said. "Prior to our harvest, you can get 11-month-old apples from Washington state that were in storage. Our deal is to get our apples picked, packed and sold before Washington starts."

Growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley have been picking Galas—the earliest commercial variety to hit the market—since the third week of July, with harvest in the northern valley well underway.

Galas are now the top-produced variety in the state—and for good reason, growers say: As an early variety, it allows California "to be the only player coming on a new market," said Steve Chinchiolo, who grows conventional and organic apples in San Joaquin County.

"It's been a main variety for us, primarily because of this window that we have before Washington comes in and gets going very strong," he said, "so we try to capitalize on that with our Galas."

Other major commercial varieties grown in the state include Granny Smith, Fuji and Cripps Pink, also marketed at Pink Lady.

After two years in which harvest started "exceptionally early," Chinchiolo described the current season as back to "more of a normal maturity date," noting that yield and fruit quality have been good. But growers have been battling extreme heat, which can cause the fruit to shut down, sometimes delaying the crop, he said. In his newer orchards, overhead sprinklers help to cool the fruit. On older blocks that don't have sprinklers, kaolin clay is applied to the trees to help prevent sunburn damage.

Sacramento County grower Doug Hemly, who started harvest last week, said he has observed in the market "more interest in California apples than there has been recently," driven mostly by the supply gap.

"How that translates into better returns is yet to be seen," he added. "I've seen a lot of markets that are interested in buying until price comes into the equation, and then things slow down."

With Washington's improved storage techniques using low oxygen controlled atmosphere, apples from the Evergreen State have stayed on the market longer, said Bill Denevan, a grower representative in Santa Cruz County for Washington-based Viva Tierra, which markets organic apples year-round from California, Washington, Chile and Argentina. He estimated there's probably 20 percent more storage apples on the market this year. New Zealand, he noted, has also increased its organic apple production, with fruit still on the market, which will affect California growers this season.

"We're getting a slightly lower price," he said. "When the market is completely empty, you can almost name your price. That's not happening anymore."

Despite these market pressures, Denevan said demand for fresh apples from California remains strong.

"We're still selling like crazy," he added. "People want fresh apples and that's what we have right now—and we have high-sugar apples too."

With acreage just shy of 14,000, California remains one of the nation's top apple producers, behind Washington, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But acreage in the state has continued to decline steadily through the years. For example, 10 years ago there were 20,500 acres of apples in the state, and acreage stood at 28,000 in 2003.

"I think with the nut crops doing so well, a lot of growers moved to nuts," Chinchiolo said. "I know the labor issue is a concern for a lot of people with tree crops. Apples are all hand-harvested. Nuts are a much lower labor-input crop, so they're desirable to a lot of people, and their returns have been pretty good too."

Growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley have removed a lot of their apple orchards, particularly Fuji apples, Colombini said, because the hotter climate in the region does not allow the fruit to turn red enough. He said buyers and shoppers prefer apples to be red, even though "color is more marketing and has no effect on the flavor of the apple."

Apples need sunny days and cool nights for color development, Colombini said. For this reason, San Joaquin County, with its delta breezes, has become the No. 1 region in the state for growing apples, followed by Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties. Growers in the southern valley tend to do better with green Granny Smith apples, he said, because they don't require color development.

Despite the attrition in the apple business, Chinchiolo noted it has stabilized in recent years, with some expansion taking place. But he said he doesn't think there will be huge gains in California acreage—"at least not in the foreseeable future."

"It's probably one of the more difficult crops to grow," he said of apples, noting ongoing challenges with codling moth, fire blight, sunburn and the crop's high hand-labor requirements, from picking to pruning to thinning.

Although there are ongoing efforts to develop mechanical or robotic harvesters, Chinchiolo said such prospects have "a ways to go" before they're practical for actual field use. In the meantime, growers such as Chinchiolo are increasingly replacing older orchards with shorter trees that are planted in higher density, or what is known as a pedestrian orchard, which allows the fruit to be picked mostly from the ground or on platforms, reducing the use of ladders. These systems also make pruning simpler and result in higher yields, Denevan said.

"It's utilizing your space in a much more intensive way," he said. "The whole idea is to fill the space as quickly as you can with as many easily pickable apples as you can."

Colombini and other growers are experimenting with newer apple varieties such as Honey Crisp, which he described as "very difficult to grow" because it is more susceptible to sunburn and to a calcium deficiency known as bitter pit that results in dark spots on the fruit.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.