YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - Washington growers are expecting another record apple crop, saying this year's harvest could be the largest ever.
Growers and packers are forecasting a harvest of 140 million boxes of apples. If that happens, it would easily top the 2012 record of 129 million boxes, The Yakima Herald-Republic reported in Saturday's newspaper.
Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, said they're expecting a good-sized crop of high quality apples.
He credits warm spring weather and more high-density orchards because growers have not increased their acreage in 20 years.
The harvest forecast is just an estimate. Plenty can go wrong between now and November, such as an early frost or hail or too much hot weather.
"We're not there yet," said Ray Keller, owner and general manager of Apple King, a Yakima fruit company.
A few Yakima Valley growers have started harvest, with Gingergolds among the first varieties. Galas, one of the Valley's most popular apples, will be next, possibly sometime next week.
Apples are the state's No. 1 commodity, with a $7.5 billion impact on the 2012 state economy, DeVaney said. Growing and packing apples accounts for 39,000 state jobs.
Washington is America's leading apple producer, and Yakima County produces more apples than any other county.
One small grower worried about the recent heat wave that took temperatures to 100 degrees. Apples require cool nights to convert starch into sugar and develop color.
"It's going to be another tough year," said Josh Bowman, the 22-year-old manager of his family's 170-acre Sonrise Orchards in Zillah.
Another round of hot weather is expected next week.
Others worry about finding enough employees for harvest.
"I would worry for the state whether we have the hands to capture and put away that much product," said Keith Matthews, CEO of First Fruits Marketing, a Yakima sales firm for Broetje Orchards of Prescott, east of Pasco in Franklin County.
Each year, growers complain about a lack of seasonal workers. The 2013 labor shortage reached its peak of 8.5 percent in September, during the thick of the apple harvest, according to state Employment Security Department data.
As for sales, a large crop makes foreign exports even more important, industry officials said.
Washington exports roughly 30 percent of its fruit, including apples.
"That impact is magnified as the crop gets bigger," said Mark Powers, executive vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the fruit industry in trade and regulatory issues.