Apples were worth more than $2 billion to Washington farmers in 2012, the first crop in state history to cross that threshold, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That was 16.5 percent more than in 2011, and the increase was fueled by a big increase in Washington production and catastrophic weather problems in the competing states of New York and Michigan.
"Last year was an anomaly," said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, which is based in Wenatchee, the self-proclaimed apple capital of the world. "Everything lined up perfectly. It was incredible."
Apples, with a record nearly 129-million-bushel fresh crop, were valued at $2.25 billion in 2012, according to the USDA.
Before Boeing, Microsoft or Starbucks existed, apples were the iconic product of Washington state. The fruit is grown in irrigated orchards, mostly in the valleys of central Washington, where hot days and cool nights provide ideal conditions for crisp, juicy apples.
Washington grows about 65 percent of the nation's apples. The crop has long been the state's most valuable for farmers. In 2010, apples were worth $1.5 billion to the approximately 5,000 growers. In 2011, it grew to $1.9 billion.
The $2.25 billion revenues for last year reflected only sales to the fresh market.
If you throw in the value of apples diverted to make juice, applesauce and other products, Washington apples were worth a staggering $3.4 billion in 2012, according to the Washington Growers Clearing House in Wenatchee.
A major reason for the increase in revenues last year was that unseasonably cold weather devastated the apple crops in New York and Michigan, which drove up the price of the remaining fruit, Fryhover said.
Washington growers in the past decade have also dramatically increased production, and switched over to more profitable varieties like Honeycrisp and Fuji, Fryhover said.
The industry is dominated by family farmers who own their orchards, packing houses and sales and marketing operations, Fryhover said. A series of good years prompted many farmers to invest in and expand their orchards.
In the past, apple trees were planted at a rate of 300 to 400 per acre, and produced up to 40 bins of apples per acre, Fryhover said. But new techniques allow growers to pack up to 1,500 trees per acre, producing over 100 bins of apples per acre, he said.
The result is that apple production grew from 109 million bushels in 2010 to a record of nearly 129 million bushels last year. A bushel is the equivalent of 42 pounds of apples.
Apples averaged a record $24.41 per bushel in fresh sales in 2012, up from $22.71 in 2011.
Red Delicious remained the biggest single variety, accounting for about 30 percent of apples grown, or some 35 million bushels. But that was way down from the 70 percent it accounted for 15 years ago, Fryhover said.
Gala is the second most popular variety. Fuji, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious round out the top five, he said.
With New York and Michigan returning to normal levels of production this year, Washington apples may not fetch as much money as last year, Fryhover said. The 2013 crop appears to be the second largest in state history, up to 120 million bushels, he said.
"It will be more competitive this year, but it looks to be a good year for Washington apples," Fryhover said.