COWICHE, Wash. — As Cowiche Growers packs about 15 percent more apples than anticipated, every spare storage room at its facility — including the aisles — is bulging with apple bins and filled apple boxes.
The Cowiche-based company has been running a second half-shift in the evenings to get apples packed and shipped quicker to open space for apples sitting outside.
“We’re just juggling things to get everything inside,” said Laurie Knebusch, Cowiche Growers’ president and general manager.
A record state apple crop has fruit packing houses across the Yakima Valley scrambling to find warehouse space.
The state is projected to have a fresh apple crop of about 121.5 million boxes in the 2012-13 season, 11 percent higher than the previous record of 109.4 boxes for 2010-11, according to a recent estimate from the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
Yakima Valley shippers are expected to pack 85.5 million boxes, or 70.4 percent of the state fresh apple crop, about the same size as the entire 2001 state fresh apple crop.
It’s not that fruit shippers haven’t anticipated growth. Over the last several years, several packing houses have been adding warehouse space.
Washington Fruit, one of the state’s largest shippers, has been building new facilities for the last five years. The new construction has provided the company with about 25 percent more storage space, said operations manager Tommy Hanses.
That space certainly came in handy during this year: Hanses estimates that Washington Fruit has packed about 20 percent more fruit this year than a year ago.
“I think we’ve done better than some, because we’ve kept up with the storage capacity and how we’ve been growing,” he said.
Other packing houses have had different strategies for dealing with the space issue, including using older cold storage and controlled-atmosphere rooms or renting space from other fruit shippers.
Renting storage space is a common practice, said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association. What is different this year is that with packing houses needing the space themselves, the amount of rental space has been more limited.
“I think people are more aware (that) you can’t take for granted that (others) have that space available,” DeVaney said.
CPC International Apple Co. in Tieton managed to find some controlled atmosphere space to rent for apples that will be shipped much later in the marketing season. The company is going to pack about 25 percent more apples this year, said Jon Alegria, president of CPC International.
But cold storage space, used for packed apple boxes to be shipped in the next few months, is less of an issue because the demand for those apples has been strong, Alegria said.
Indeed, the issue of warehouse space would have been more severe if not for the market void created from the smaller crop of several apple growing regions worldwide. New York and Michigan, for example, lost much of their crop in frost damage last spring.
As a result, the state is shipping at a brisk pace. So far this season, 15.7 percent of the fresh apple crop has been shipped, compared to 13.4 percent last year and 13 percent in 2010, according to figures from the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
“Having such a large increase in one year is easier to deal with ... when there are others who are not able to supply those customers,” DeVaney said.
In the end, while it’s a bit of a challenge to find space for all these apples, the industry sees the warehouse shortage as a temporary pain for a growing industry.
DeVaney said the industry will likely keep building new controlled storage and cold rooms as the state continues to see larger crops.
“There’s going to be continued investment in the industry because there’s strong demand,” he said. “There’s a need to upgrade facilities.”
CPC International plans to build additional storage space in 2013 that would increase its warehouse capacity by about 35 percent to 40 percent, Alegria said.
Hanses, of Washington Fruit, believes the record crop is just that — a record. Though he anticipates larger crops in the future, he believes the huge year-over-year increase will not occur every year.
“We had some yields per acre that has been unprecedented,” he said. “We had a lot of apples on the tree and they sized well.”
Washington Fruit doesn’t plan to build any new facilities in 2013 but is looking into constructing new controlled atmosphere rooms in 2014, which would align with its strategy of building new facilities every two to three years.
“It seems in every two-year cycle there is a big crop, then the crop is smaller,” he said. “That corresponds with the expansion schedule.”
• Mai Hoang can be reached at 509-759-7851 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.