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Experts preview 2024 Washington apple industry

Mar. 20—MOSES LAKE — Several factors will likely play a significant role in 2024's apple industry, including labor shortages, legislation, water availability issues, a strong export market and last year's opening of the Indian market, according to representatives of the Washington Apple Commission and the Washington Tree Fruit Association.

Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said it is too early for a real crop prediction.

"We will not really start trying to do an initial estimate for talking to our members until later in the spring," DeVaney said. "Crops can be affected by so much weather in between the early part of the season and when harvest begins. We try not to make too many firm predictions too early."

DeVaney said last year's crop was quite large, around 140 million boxes of fruit compared to the unusually small crop of around 104 million the year before that. In an email to the Columbia Basin Herald, Washington Apple Commission International Marketing Specialist Jennie Strong said a large crop is typically followed by a smaller crop, meaning the next crop size may be a more typical 125-130 million boxes.

Strong said that the decreased crop yield of 104 million boxes led to a decrease in exports, but exports from the larger 140 million box crop have led to an increase of about 83.5% since this time last year.

Strong elaborated on another positive for the industry this year.

"The Section 232 retaliatory tariffs on steel and aluminum against U.S. apple and other agricultural products was lifted just in time for the 2023 apple harvest," she said.

Strong said the lifting of the tariffs makes India a viable market for the Washington apple industry.

Also writing in an email to the Columbia Basin Herald, Washington Apple Commission President Todd Fryhover explained the impact of a larger crop, such as last year's yield.

"The positive of a larger crop volume is WA's ability to provide consumers with more fruits highlighting our new tastes and textures," he said. "Larger crops typically provide aggressive pricing structures allowing for an increase in shipment volume and introductions of new varieties to more consumers — this increased production leads to an expansion of consumption which leads to an increase in per capita consumption (a big win for WA). Long-term, increased production is good. The challenge is staying in business as prices get aggressive and costs (labor and inputs) increase."

Fryhover also said the new varieties can pose issues.

"New varieties displace old mainstream varieties as consumption remains static and crop volumes remain high," he said. "The industry trend to new varieties is positive, but the impact to older varieties, or growers who haven't committed fast enough to these new varieties, is definitely a negative."

DeVaney said growers are not seeing prices match increasing production costs, with the price of many varieties going down, which is not helped by labor shortages.

"A lot of growers are experiencing a lot of financial difficulty because of those market conditions and the costs of production. And some of those are just general economic (factors) and some are public policy related, labor in particular," he said. "Apples are a very labor-dependent crop, and about 60% or so of production costs are labor related."

With a labor shortage, DeVaney said many growers have had to utilize the H2A guest worker program, which he said is very expensive to use due to an increased minimum wage of $19.25, free housing and transportation and other benefits for H2A workers. Fryhover also said the H2A program is very costly.

"I realize labor is a concern on both sides of the mountains, but Washington hand picks every apple and doesn't have the domestic labor force necessary to accomplish this monumental task without the H2A program," he said. "(Look at) the recent increases in our labor costs through H2A and the minimum wage, coupled with our need for hand labor — growers are struggling to stay in business."

DeVaney said the beginning of 2024 saw the implementation of new overtime requirements providing time-and-a-half pay for agricultural workers who work more than 40 hours a week.

"If you're already at a higher wage rate, and then you get those benefits plus you go into time-and-a-half overtime, very few people can afford to pay that," he said.

Agricultural work does not suit itself to overtime restrictions, DeVaney said, with much of the work needing to be done immediately or it won't get done at all.

"If growers are in dire financial straits and they're seeing a 50% cost increase in their biggest expense, they just can't absorb that added loss," he said. "So they are saying, 'Well, I will just have to pick this fruit at a less optimal time next week or not at all.' And that means that many workers are seeing fewer hours on offer, and they're seeing an actual net decrease in their take home."

DeVaney said another challenge that might present itself this year is the potential curtailment of junior water rights due to reduced water availability in Washington. Nonetheless, DeVaney said, the state is still one of the best places for apple production, as the water is still very reliable.

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.