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iSeeChange: Apple Economics in Western Colorado

Flowercat via Flickr (CC-NC-SA)

The height of the fruit season is approaching here in western Colorado, so for this week’s iSeeChange report, we decided to zoom out a bit and look at how Colorado’s biggest fruit crop fits into the national scene.  

On the Almanac a few weeks ago, an iSeeChanger named Megan Hines from Wisconsin said apples seemed to be ripe earlier than usual in her state. Anna Maenner, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, told us that indeed they are. She says the window for ripe apples usually swings between being two weeks early and two weeks late.

So that’s good info for Wisconsins, but why should our Colorado listeners and iSeeChangers care? Can those year-to-year fluctuations in other states, or even across the country, have an effect on apple growers here in western Colorado?

Tom Alvey, President of Rogers Mesa Fruits outside of Hotchkiss, says the national market does have some effect on local growers.

"The apple market is really controlled by Washington State, because their production is huge," he says.

Alvey started growing apples in the valley in 1976, and has been packing and shipping organic fruit from area growers since the company was founded in the early eighties. He says just a few years ago Rogers Mesa was shipping North fork Valley fruit all the way to the east coast, but since organic and local foods are becoming hipper every day, they can now ship most of their product to the Front Range instead, to big names like Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage.

Some of their fruit still winds up in nearby states like Texas and Arizona, so they keep an eye on the national market. But as Alvey tells it, they don’t have to watch too closely: 

"For organics, we have a nationally significant production," he says, "so we’re able to control our markets a little better than a conventional packing and sales organization would."

Still, Alvey says getting apples his on the market earlier is always a plus. Last year was a good example.

"The determining factor for when we get fruit to market is bloom time," he says. "Last year it was an early bloom. We were ahead of normal by a couple weeks for when we bloom, we had a very warm, dry spring."

Warmer temperatures made apples ready to hit the Front Range sooner, which helps, because when Coloradans in urban areas don’t see valley fruit on the shelves, they have other options.

"If we’re late like we will be this year, there can be a situation where other areas are already supplying fruit," Alvey says. "So it’s a little harder for us to get our buyers geared up and excited about paying a little more for Colorado fruit if we’re late. That'll be an issue this year, but I don't think too big of one."

Though consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for the valley’s organic apples, if they’re not there when consumers want them, cheaper conventional apples from places like, say, Wisconsin, might look just as tasty.

All the same, the national market isn’t a huge concern for Rogers Mesa Fruits or other local organic growers. The organic market is growing, for sure, but it’s still a niche market, so the economics of conventional growing don’t always apply. 

And according to Alvey, neither do the economic incentives.

"The decision to go organic if it’s made just economically is a bad decision ," he says. "If you don’t have belief in growing organically, if you don’t see the positive benefits of it, if you're just doing it because you think it'll help your bottom line,  you'll never stick with it."

Alvey says this year’s apple crop is down from last year, partly because of the late bloom but also because apples tend to produce less after an above-average year. So even though the organic industry isn’t restrained by the large-scale economics of conventional growing, there’s still a variety of factors that effect its success, the harvest size, timing and the national market being just a few.

"Those are big concerns," says Alvey. "None of us can grow just as a hobby. If the fruit isn't making money, we have to be concerned about that. No matter what our philosophical attitude is, we still have to be able to pay the bills at the end of the day."