Some Relief for Apple Growers Feeling the Heat
According to USDA data, Washington State currently produces over half of the country’s domestically grown apples and attributes its decades of successful yields to a combination of good soil, irrigation, savvy marketing, and ideal climate.
However, apple growers accustomed to these historically reliable circumstances were justifiably rattled last June when Washington State and much of the Pacific Northwest experienced a rare weather phenomenon called a “heat dome,” which drove temperatures in its key, apple growing region to a record-breaking 113 degrees.
This sustained, triple-digit heat, experienced so early in the season, had cascading consequences for the apple industry, bringing with it urgent challenges to the health and safety of workers and ongoing questions/concerns about the coming yield. Across the Rockies and at the other end of the temperature spectrum, uncharacteristic, late-spring freezes damaged apple orchards in Midwest states like Michigan and Ohio. Between these two regions, fresh-market apple holdings for June of 2021 were down 19%. By harvest, growers and packers from coast-to-coast reported external browning in apples – issues most associated with high, low, or erratic temperature swings.
If climate turbulence wasn’t putting enough pressure on apple growers, the fallout of dragging supply chain issues from COVID-19 and the more recent conflict in Ukraine have intensified other, related pain-points like a rising minimum wage and labor shortages. In consideration of these factors, it's clear -- now more than ever -- that global environmental, logistical, and political forces are creating new, destabilizing realities in our industry.
To navigate this current wave of modern challenges and those to come, the apple industry will need to continue acting swiftly to embrace new technology and processes that enable adaptability and prioritize flexibility. In recent years, the science and tech communities have initiated collaborative partnerships with growers that have launched breakthrough innovations designed to make operations more resilient.
Many of these innovations are already in-market and driving a profound impact. On one hand, lower-tech applications like overhead cooling, shade netting, and wind machines, manage unexpected temperature spikes/dives. On the other, robotics, drones, AI-based imaging and analytics platforms, all allow growers to work more efficiently, rely less on unreliable labor sources, and act on valuable, new insights. These powerful technologies are evolving quickly and becoming more accessible to growers of all sizes – helping them produce more quality with less.
Sustainable waste reduction is a key area where science and tech have made a real impact. As we know, wasted food is a big financial burden for growers and a massive problem for the planet – accounting for 8-10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and threaten future farming productivity. Addressing food waste in agriculture has a unique ability to improve margins and protect the resources of growers.
New tech and early adopters are working together to design more sustainable, flexible farms and supply chains – resulting in less food wasted, higher packouts, and more revenues. When growers, packers, and retailers embrace systems that waste less food, savings have the potential to ripple up and down the supply chain, preserving the precious resources necessary to grow and distribute the food.
The future is projected to bring more global complexities to American agriculture, and with them great opportunities to advance the way we work and produce as an industry. Close partnerships among science and growers and a shared commitment to creating flexible tech and operations will allow us all to prosper through unpredictable ups and downs, while improving the environmental conditions that make what we do possible.