A large apple crop in Washington means that the state's growers will look to export a big portion of their crop this season. But a labour dispute between port operators and longshoreman has slowed the handling of containers through the ports, and could potentially lead to supply gaps for countries in Central America, South America and Asia, where Washington fruit is sent this time of year.
“The situation is a huge mess,” said Randy Steensma of Honey Bear Tree Fruit. “We've got containers full of apples that have been sitting at the port for a week because they haven't been loaded yet. If things are running normally, the vessel is loaded and gone in 72 hours.” Refrigerated containers and the high quality nature of fruit destined for export means that apples in limbo at the port likely won't spoil, but the delay in getting fruit out quickly could lead to supply gaps in some markets abroad.
“Buyers book on a weekly basis, so they will miss a week or two,” said Steensma. “We ship to Colombia, Honduras and Panama, so there will be gaps there, and also in some Asian markets, like Hong Kong, India and Jakarta, which is a big destination for us right now.” Shippers are hoping for a quick resolution to the labour dispute, which has intensified as the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have tried to agree on a new contract. The spillover from those negotiations has resulted in delays at the port. Though a resolution is urgently sought because of the broad commerce ramifications, Washington's apple growers, who are sitting on a large crop, have been counting more on exports this year than in previous years.
“In a normal year, about a third of the state's apple crop goes overseas,” explained Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission. “However, this year, with the large crop we have and with the large apple crops in other states, we're thinking upwards of 50 percent of our crop will have to go to export.” Up to now, Washington was on course to have a strong export season, with the state's apple exports up 50 percent over the previous year. The state's growers also gained direct access to China for their Red and Golden Delicious varieties, but the port problems haven't allowed growers to fully take advantage of that.
“This is a big issue, not just for us, but for others as well,” said Lyons. “We just hope this will be quickly resolved.”