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Northwest 'Apple Auditor' Keeps A Close Eye On The Crop

The Northwest apple harvest is just underway and pickers are wading into the lush orchards. And so far things look dramatically better than last year.

Apple farmers don’t like to dis a crop. But last year… well, it was tough. Scorching temperatures and drought made it hard to bring in firm, crisp fruit for the whole eating season.

This year farmers are smiling wide. Apples appear like they will store better and last longer at peak ripeness. That’s because the apples had enough warm weather to grow large enough. They had enough cool nights to have good acids for that tart snap and enough warm days to ripen up and color up.

This year’s crop looks to be the second largest on record. Washington farmers estimate they’ll harvest about 133 million boxes of apples -- up 15 percent over last year’s crop.

So who tracks all that fruit?

Ken Agnew is a horticulturist for Stemilt Growers. He’s the auditor. The guy standing between you and the dreaded good-looking-but-mushy apple.

“People don’t like to eat a real soft and mealy apple,” Agnew said. “So we want to make sure they have good firmness and sugar.”

Dressed in a tidy plaid short-sleeve dress shirt and cargo pants, Agnew tested apples in an orchard outside of Pasco on the back of his pickup’s tailgate.

With his pocket knife Agnew bored into apples, sliced up sections and sprayed them with iodine. Then he squeezed them for their juice. He recorded just how crisp and sweet the fresh-picked apples were.

Selling a warehouse of apples at the wrong time could mean huge losses. So he drives from far-flung farm to farm like a crop herald telling the fruit warehouses and top managers what to expect.

But ask this numbers guy if it’s a vintage year?

Agnew responded with a simple, “We’ll see.”

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.