YAKIMA — Larger crops, changing varieties and mechanization are key issues facing the apple industry in the state of Washington in the years ahead, a horticulture official said at a convention in Yakima.
Growers will have to find the right mix of apple varieties for the market and continue to promote exports, said David Douglas, president of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
Apples are grown on about 160,000 acres in the state. Export sales account for about a third of all the apples sold, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported Tuesday.
Douglas made his statement at the 108th annual convention of the association that attracted about 1,600 people to the Yakima Convention Center.
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Attendees are also checking out a trade show at the Yakima Valley SunDome, with 250 exhibitors showing off equipment, services and products.
Washington is the nation’s leading apple producer. This year’s crop was a record 121 million boxes. A box of apples weighs 40 pounds.
“The mix of varieties has changed and is vastly different,” said Douglas, referring to the decreasing numbers of Red Delicious apples and increasing volumes of Honeycrisp, Gala and other varieties.
“We have to continue to make sure we are growing the mix of fruit the market desires. As we grow larger crops, it is important to be in position to export,” said Douglas, a member of the family ownership group of Douglas Fruit.
Larger crops will come from higher yields on the same number of acres, he said.
An economic study requested by the Washington Apple Commission concluded the apple industry contributed more than $7 billion to the state’s economy during the 2010-2011 marketing season. Nearly 60,000 people were employed in production and related industries, generating wages of about $1.95 billion.
Labor shortages in the orchards the past two years have growers looking to increase mechanization.
“Mechanization is something the industry needs to work toward,” Douglas said. “All our apples are hand-picked. There will be some that will be machine-harvested. It is hard to know how soon.”
In Washington state, agriculture employs about 160,000 people.
Thousands are estimated to be in the country illegally, and many farmers say the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants has resulted in labor shortages.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has pushed the federal government to enact immigration reform that includes a viable guest-worker program, border protection and a path to citizenship for illegal workers.
Farmers are as close to seeing meaningful changes in immigration as they’ve been in the past decade, said Jon Wyss, who handles labor issues for Gebbers Farms, a large grower in north-central Washington that fired hundreds of workers after it was subject to a federal immigration audit three years ago.
But whether comprehensive reform occurs in Congress next year remains to be seen, so growers must make their voices heard to push for change, he said.
Wyss said national farm groups have joined together to propose a new package that would reduce the requirements for growers to recruit workers before turning to a guest-worker program, and would move that program from the purview of the Labor Department to the more farm-friendly Agriculture Department.
He also noted that the Farm Bureau of America also supports the package, marking the first time the country’s major farm groups are in agreement on the issue.