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Northwest Apple Exports Are Down As Eastern European Growers Crunch Into U.S. Shipments

Washington Apple Commission
File photo. Exports of Washington's signature apple crop are down nearly 20 percent this year compared to the same time last year due to multiple factors.

Washington apple growers are shipping about 20 percent less fruit abroad now compared with this time last year.

The result is a drop to export levels not seen since 2003-2004, according to Washington Apple Commission president Todd Fryhover.  

A boom in American consumers’ online shopping during the pandemic has prompted a boost in imports from Asia. But that left U.S. agriculture products without a ride back. Many ships aren’t waiting to be loaded with agricultural goods at West Coast ports before heading back across the ocean with empty containers. Plus, the Trump administration’s trade war hit apples hard

Now Eastern European countries are crunching into exports from Northwest apple growers. 

Fryhover says countries like Serbia, Moldova and Russia have access to newer varieties.

“They have (been) improving horticultural practices, and their labor is much less expensive than us here in the United States,” he said. 

Fryhover says his organization has seen as many as 20 different countries’ labels or cartons on apples coming into India, where the U.S. used to dominate the market. In particular, he says, many growers in Eastern European countries are concentrating on the popular Gala apples and exporting them to many countries to which the U.S. also sells.

In the bag

It turns out, pre-bagged apples are helping make up the difference. Fryhover says they’re great for retailers, and consumers tend to buy more fruit than they normally would when picking individual apples from a display bin and bagging themselves. 

“So the prices are higher,” Fryhover says. “They’re selling $5 of apples rather than $0.99. And it’s very safe as far as COVID goes. … Consumers don’t have to go to pick through apples that someone else has picked through prior to them.”

Since the pandemic has curtailed other promotions like in-store samples, Fryhover says the apple industry is focusing on boosting sales with social influencers and chefs across the globe. 

The numbers

Numbers are also skewed because the 2019-2020 crop was bigger than this year’s. In 2019-2020, Washington growers had 134 million 40-pound boxes of apples. And in 2020-2021, just 122 million boxes. 

One reason for the smaller crop for the current season was a cold snap in October and November that left some later-season apples like Pink Ladies on the tree unpicked. And some varieties produced smaller apples as well.

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.