Big Apple snubs New York harvest

Mike Martino grows apples for a living at Honey Hill Orchards in Chittenango, N.Y., just outside Syracuse. But the roller-coaster weather early during last year’s growing season may change that.

The 52-year-old apple grower, who’s been in the business for 18 years, said he lost his entire crop in 2012.

“It was 100 percent loss,” he said. “You’re looking at between 10 and 15 thousand dollars. I can’t say how many crops I can afford to lose before I have to give it up.”

Martino is far from alone. Agronomists say a mix of unseasonably hot and frigid temperatures recorded a year ago wreaked havoc on New York State’s apple-growing industry. Coupled with shifting consumer preferences in apple varieties — shifting away from those literally synonymous with the state, like Empire and Cortlandt — the devastated apple crop led to an increased reliance among New Yorkers on apples from places like Washington State, according to a review of 18 months worth of U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The data shows the number of shipments coming into the market but does not indicate the size or weight of each, so the numbers provide only a rough gauge of market activity. Still, they show apple shipments coming into the Hunts Point food distribution center in the Bronx from New York State dropping throughout the past 18 months as New York City markets stocked more and more out-of-state apples, mainly from Washington State. The decrease appeared the most acute in the last four months of 2012.

The Hunts Point distribution center received almost all of its apple shipments from out-of-state sources in September before in-state shipments gained ground by the end of the year, according to the USDA data, which consisted of recorded samples of weekly shipments based on price, origin, variety and other characteristics.

Last year, market analysts predicted that the poor weather conditions would cause a severe decline in apple production. New York harvested 30.7 million bushels in 2011; the following fall, growers projected the 2012 harvest would only be half that size. (A bushel is a basket eight gallons in size, weighing about 48 pounds.)

The reality turned out to be even grimmer. Jim Allen, the president of the New York Apple Association, says the apple harvest produced approximately 60 percent fewer apples in 2012 than it did a year earlier.

“In the month of March we had extremely hot weather — 80 or 90 degrees,” he said. “It triggered the trees to come out of dormancy, and they started to ‘green up,’ which put us six weeks ahead of schedule. Then in April we had freezing temperatures 14 different times, and the freeze did a lot of damage.”

Apple prices, as a result, soared to historic levels. In August, apple grower prices skyrocketed from a June wholesale price of 11 cents per pound to 53 cents a pound, the second-highest price for that month since 1985. Apple-growing season begins in August.

“This year’s was the worst crop I’ve seen in the past 35 years” said 54-year-old Paul Desiderio, the owner of Desi’s Produce, a Buffalo-based retailer of state-grown apples. “There’s no apples to sell.”

New York State is a major producer of apples in the U.S., second only after Washington State. The Big Apple’s foremost politicians have put their weight behind legislation that encourages buying locally: In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill that encourages city agencies to buy more from New York State farms. The previous year, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn lamented New York’s preference for apples coming from elsewhere.

An apple orchard in Penn Yan, New York. Photo: Pembleton

Yet New Yorkers still see more out-of-state apples on store shelves than in-state, and consumers should blame themselves as much as the weather.

Mark Gedris, communications director at the U.S. Apple Association, points to a recent shift in consumer preference for apple varieties that are not commonly grown in New York.

The shift was facilitated by the introduction some 30 years ago of controlled-atmosphere storage technology, which is used to artificially put fruits to sleep. Distributors have used the technique to sustain the growing appetite of Empire State consumers for apple varieties produced elsewhere, Gedris says.

“Look at how many Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji are consumed compared to 10 years from now, it’s about 10 times greater,” Gedris said. “New York does not grow enough of these.”

McIntosh is by far the state’s most widely grown variety. “In New York, the Mac is king,” Gedris said.

New York farmers grew approximately 5.5 million bushels of McIntosh apples in 2011, according to combined data from the USDA Apple Tree Survey and the Cornell University Cooperative Extension — some 25 percent of the state’s average total harvest.

In contrast, in 2012, more than one-third of Washington’s yearly harvest consists of the in-demand Honey Crisp, Fuji and Gala varieties, according to figures from the Washington State Apple Commission.

And since growing apple trees to maturity can take up to five years, it will take time to tell whether New York’s apple growers can adapt their production to the changing market tastes.

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