An unexpected squirrel population boom is wreaking havoc on apple crops in many parts of the country. As the Associated Press recently noted, thanks to last year's mild winter and a bumper crop of nuts, the fuzzy tailed little miscreants are doing serious damage in places like Vermont, South Carolina and New York. The apple-related casualties have been so numerous, in fact, that some states have gone as far as to inject the problematic pests with birth-control chemicals.
The good news for Washington, according to Jason Kelly with the Department of Agriculture, is there's no such squirrel scourge in our state - at least that he's aware of. But that's not to say apple growers here don't face a constant barrage of pests and hurdles when it comes to getting their goods to market.
"I've never heard that one before," says Kelly when posed with questions about squirrels run amok in apple orchards.
He's not alone.
"I haven't heard horror tales of attack of the squirrels so far, at least in Washington State," says Jon Devaney, the executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers Shippers Association, a non-profit trade association representing the Yakima Valley tree fruit industry. "But controlling for pests is always a challenge for anyone in agriculture."
While squirrels may not be a problem in Washington, Devaney says the biggest threat posed to apple growers in our state comes from insects, specifically because of the tight regulations placed on the exportation fruit. Devaney says one-third of Washington's apple crop is exported.
As it turns out, the squirrel population boom isn't the only stroke of Mother Nature making life miserable on growers in many parts of the country - and all of it comes during what's expected to be a banner year for Washington apple production. Devaney says many apple-growing states to the east of us were hit by substantial frost damage early in the spring, which has significantly impacted the apples states like New York and Michigan expect to produce. Devaney says New York, the country's second biggest apple producer by state, expects to have about half of its typical apple crop, while Michigan, the third biggest apple producer by state, estimates it may only pump out 10 percent of its typical crop.
Because of this, "There's record demand for Washington apples," says Devaney.
And, as luck would have it, apple growers in Washington expect to be able to deliver on the need. Devaney says the indications point to a record-setting year in the works, with the expectation being that Washington will exceed its previous record of 109.4 million boxes of fresh apples produced during this year's harvest season, which runs from August to early November.
"In Washington State we are looking at a crop that's going to be at, or probably end up being above, our record level for production," says Devaney.
But not all the news is positive for Washington growers. As has been noted before, a shortage of seasonal apple pickers in our state is making things difficult for growers hoping to cash in on a high demand for their product, and the higher-than-normal prices that accompany that demand.
"There's good news if you can get fruit picked, but as always labor is a challenge," says Devaney, who estimates the shortage of pickers to be as much as 20 percent in some areas. Devaney says the State Employment Security listings currently show 737 unfilled openings for pickers.
"People are making due, but that can disguise the financial consequences and the supply consequences for fruit. It's a perishable product, and you want to pick at the right time so it's at its peak of quality," says Devaney. "If you pick it at an off peak time, you're still going to experience economic losses."
Much like an unexpected boom in the squirrel population was difficult to foresee, Devaney says the true fate of this year's harvest will likely come down to something equally unpredictable: the weather.
"How serious the consequences of a [labor] shortage are depend on how long [growers] are going to have to get all their work done. Growers might not want to pick later [in the season], but they'll still pick, if they have the time," says Devaney. "If we start getting winter weather arriving a week or two earlier than we hope, then the clock has run out on you. You don't have time to catch up on that fruit.
"We won't know exactly what the final consequences of falling behind where we want to be are until we get to the end of harvest."