McLean, VA (written by Gary Strauss/USA Today) -- There's an Apple shortage this fall, and it's not the iPhone variety.
This year's apple crop is shaping up as the smallest since 1986, down 14% from 2011. The core problem: a March warming spree that prompted trees to bud early, followed by an April cold snap that killed off apple blossoms.
The weather pattern destroyed 52% of New York's harvest, nearly 90% of Michigan's and soured crops from Canada to North Carolina, says Mark Gedris, of the U.S Apple Association.
The fallout is expected to push up retail prices on individual apples by as much as $1 a pound, boost juice prices 20% or more, crimp regional supplies of prized local varieties and take a slice of the lucrative export market. Tony Freytag, marketing chief for Crunch Pak, a leading sliced apple marketer to Wal-Mart, Costco and Kroger, says price hikes could be more severe later this year and early 2013 in the Midwest and Northeast as local supplies, which can be stored for several months, dwindle.
In New York - where legislators contemplated emergency tax relief for growers - some orchards are charging $8 a gallon for cider, more than double the national average price of gasoline. Some of the state's prized varieties, such as Empire, are especially hard hit, forcing orchards to cut back on roadside farm-stand sales and pick-your-own days. "I've heard from growers in the business for several generations who haven't seen anything like this since the 1940s," says New York Apple Association spokeswoman Molly Golden.
Dennis Oulette, whose 90-acre orchard in Sterling, N.Y., was mostly sheltered by its proximity to Lake Ontario, says he may lose just 20% of his harvest. He'll make that up by getting higher prices. "Demand is incredible," says Oulette, 66.
Fourth generation Michigan apple farmer Mark Youngquist's 180-acre orchard near Kent City will produce just 7,000 bushels this year. In a good year, he harvests 120,000. Youngquist says his workforce of 30 seasonal workers is down to six. Local roads, normally filled with trucks laden for packing plants, are deserted. "It's like a ghost town. I've never seen a year like this," he says.
Things could be even worse if not for Washington, the nation's No.1 apple state. Its crop is expected to come in at nearly 109 million bushels, second-largest in history. "Normally, we have between 50% to 60% of the domestic market. This year, it'll be nearly 80%," says Rebecca Lyons, of the Washington State Apple Commission.
The state's harvest already is yielding 16% higher prices for growers. Popular varieties such as Red Delicious are fetching about $25 a bushel, while exotics such as Honeycrisps are selling for almost $60. "It's a good year to be a grower in Washington state," Lyons says.