In Washington, green grass is covering the rolling hills of the valleys, fresh flowers have sprouted and light rain sprinkles on the new life blossoming in the state. The mornings are crisp and cool, but the sun is shining by afternoon. Spring has arrived and with it, preparation for the next apple harvest. Growers have pruned their orchards to balance the growth of the fruit and buds have emerged. Soon after, the major growing regions of Washington are adorned with beautiful blossoms – spring bloom has arrived!
The timing of bloom depends on many factors including location and elevation, but the window occurs between April and May. A branch of an apple tree produces clusters of buds and there is a ‘king bloom’ which will be the first to bud to open and produces the largest apples. These buds will develop, grow then open over the course of the bloom process, transforming into delicate, white flower blossoms. These blossoms are pollinated by hard working bees! Apples require cross pollination, which means a flower blossom on the tree must receive pollen from another variety of apples. There are pollinizer trees such as crabapple trees, strategically planted throughout the orchard. They provide a source of pollen for the bees to fertilize the blossoms. The bees transport pollen on their legs as they move from blossom to blossom searching for nectar. Bees are essential to the process, so growers bring in hives during the bloom period – creating a buzz of energy in the orchards.
The bloom process is beautiful but presents challenges to growers. The low overnight and morning temperatures bring frost concerns. If the temperatures drop too low they can kill off the blossoms, which kills the potential fruit. To combat against possible frost damage, growers utilize wind machines help circulate air into cold pockets of an orchard and brings warmer air down to the tree level. Overhead irrigation provides protection by spraying the trees, which freezes over and the continual application of water transfers heat to the blossoms and keeps the internal temperature from dropping below 32 degrees. Growers and orchard workers will meticulously track the temperatures throughout the night to monitor and strategize how best to protect the blossoms against the cold.
Bloom keeps both the bees and growers busy in order to produce and protect a successful crop of quality Washington apples for everyone to enjoy!
Winter in Washington Orchards
After apple harvest is complete, and all the apples are packed into the warehouses Washington begins to transition into the winter season. Snow is common in Washington’s major growing regions and mountain ranges. The apple trees are in dormancy (resting state) and growers have prepared their orchards for cold temperatures. The work for next year’s harvest begins as the current one ends.
Growers and orchard workers prune the apple trees while they are dormant. Dormancy occurs when the trees produce growth inhibitor hormones resulting in a resting state. The pruning helps balance the amount of fruit that the tree will produce the next year. The removal of branches will allow more light to reach the apples inside the canopy. It balances the fruit growth for better quality. Pruning also controls the tree shape and stimulates growth.
Winter chill is required for apple trees to produce fruit. Winter chill is the amount of hours where the temperatures are 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Apples require 500 to 1100 chill units. 1 hour equals 1 chill unit.
Snow is a vital part of Washington’s agricultural abundance. Snowpack in the mountains replenishes the rivers with fresh water as it melts in the warmer months. The Columbia River, Yakima River and storage reservoirs are the water source for irrigation systems in the dry climates of Washington’s fruit growing regions.
Quality Apples, Inside and Out: My First Packing House Tour
Being raised in an apple growing family, I had spent time in an orchard before and have knowledge of the harvest process, varieties, common pests and diseases and then of course the challenges and rewards of being an apple grower. But there is still a lot left to learn – like what happens with the fruit once it has left the orchard! To kickstart my education Todd Fryhover, WAC President, coordinated a full tour of a packing line.
I was familiar with the basic of the process. Cold storage apples are brought in, they are submerged in water where they float down a line. Bad apples with rot are thrown out, good apples keep on going. They are cleaned and then workers sort through them as they go down the line, dividing the apples by grade and color. That was my overall knowledge.
As I was given a wonderful and thorough tour of the packing facility I learned all of the detail that goes into sorting and packing apples. For example, the apple bins are submerged in water in order to remove the apples from the bin efficiently without bruising. It also starts off the cleaning process.
The entire packing process was interesting and amazing to see. However, there were TWO fascinating elements of packing apples I learned about:
Apples produce wax to coat their outer skin. It serves a protectant layer to keep the skin in good condition. As the apples are submerged in water and cleaned off for safe eating, the wax comes off but it needs that protectant layer. The packing house reapplies the wax, either Shellac wax, which is from the secretions the lac beetle uses to coat their eggs or Carnauba which is made from palm tree leaf sap. Just like putting on sunscreen…if you go in the pool and it all comes off, what do you need to do? Put it back on! That’s the same idea here. The wax provides a shine that displays the brilliant colors and shape of Washington apples. The application of wax helps preserve the apple, so it can travel well across the world and shows off the cosmetic appeal of Washington apples.
2. Color sorting and internal imaging technology
While I knew packing houses utilized huge imaging computers that takes pictures to sort apples by color and size and to catch any external damages…I had never heard of the new technology some packing houses are using, which is an imaging machine that can detect internal defects like water core, rot and browning. It is a non-invasive, safe near-infrared (NIR) technology. Before this technology the only way you knew an apple had internal defects was to cut it open. The last thing Washington apple growers and packers want is for a consumer to cut open an apple and be unhappy with the quality so they have taken steps to ensure that only the highest of quality of apples are on the shelves.
The entire packing from start to finish was precise and efficient. Each step was a series of quality checks. Computer technology and skilled employees worked together to keep the system running smoothly and at the end…delicious, beautiful Washington apples were packed in boxes ready to be shipped to consumers all over the world!
Welcome to the WAC Blog!
Whether you are unfamiliar with apple production and looking for insight, or an experienced industry member wanting to see the industry through new eyes, I encourage you to join me on my Washington apple journey!
As the new recruit at the Washington Apple Commission as the Communications Outreach Coordinator, I am stepping into a position with a steep learning curve. While the apples themselves are not a stranger to me because I grew up in an apple growing family, dabbled in the FFA Apple Judging competition in high school and am a big fan of the fruit as snack…this side of the industry is a whole new ball game all together!
First let me start by providing some background. The Washington Apple Commission (WAC) is a promotional organization dedicated to marketing Washington grown apples. International trade is our sole focus since about 1/3 of Washington grown apples are exported. Washington represents about 90% of total US apple exports. The WAC drives consumer demand for Washington grown apples by conducting promotions in foreign markets. We work to build brand loyalty to Washington apples through strategic marketing activities. This includes providing promotional support to international importers, wholesalers and retailers.
We have a contracted representatives in each key market, a total of 12 worldwide. They are an extension of the WAC’s marketing strategy work. Their role is to organize promotional activities in retail stores with displays from our marketing campaign, serve as a liaison to the people and culture of the market, and report news and industry information to the WAC. The promotional activities help build a reputation for Washington apples as high quality and elite. The objective is to associate the best apples with Washington.
Another component of WAC, and my position, is to communicate with growers and packers about industry trends, the market situation and overall apple trade news.
Within my first week, well really my first day, I began to learn the complexities of the apple industry and all the components required to get a beautiful, crisp Red Delicious on the tree, to a grocery store display in Taiwan. My journey to understand and promote all the elements is going to be a fun ride. I invite you to see the Washington apple industry through a new perspective with me