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Apples are a valued crop in the U.S., with commercial orchards producing a little more than 10.5 billion pounds in 2021. Knowing how to grow an apple tree is about more than planting a seed and waiting for apple seedlings to emerge.
How do apples grow?
- Intro to Apples
- Major Apple Growing Regions
- Major Apple Varieties
- Apple Lifecycle
- Apple Market Size and Price
- Apple Uses and End Markets
- Organic Apples
Intro to Apples
The most likely story of how the apple came to the U.S. originates between the Caspian and Black Seas. Apples had been a staple food for at least 750,000 years, enjoyed by ancient Greeks and Romans well before they crossed an ocean to land in North America.
In the U.S., settlers brought seeds with them as they made their lives in the New World, and the myth of Johnny Appleseed is actually true. John Chapman traveled West and planted apple seedlings extensively, spreading this crop across the country.
Today, apples are the most popular fruit in the United States, with each person in the country consuming just over 26 pounds in various forms annually.
Major Apple Growing Regions
Where do apples grow? Apple orchards cover about 322,000 acres of land in this country. The majority of states in the U.S.(32 to be exact) grow apples, but the top ten producers are:
- New York
- North Carolina
It’s important to note that out of the states above, Washington is by far the powerhouse of U.S. commercial apple production. Washington grows roughly 171 million bushels out of the 240 million bushels grown every year in the U.S.
Why do apples grow in cold climates? Although apples can be grown in many regions, they prefer a climate with cold winters and moderately hot and humid summers. They need winter chill hours to set fruit in the summer.
Relatively dry conditions can help prevent disease, but trees will typically need irrigation applied. This is why eastern Washington grows so many apples.
Major Apple Varieties
There are over 200 varieties of apple grown in the U.S. This apple variety keeps the crop strong and varied, but larger commercial growers focus on just nine. Some have specific availability in the year, while others are available year-round.
- Pink Lady
- Golden Delicious
- Granny Smith
- Red Delicious
Many of these are crossed with other apple varieties to increase their yield, boost flavor, and improve hardiness.
Club Apple Varieties
The past three decades have seen the rise of club apples, or novelty apple varieties that are patented and trademarked so that only a limited “club” of farmers can grow them.
Patented in 1988, the Honeycrisp apple was the first of these club varieties, but many have emerged in recent years. Have you ever run across a Pink Lady, Jazz, or SweeTango in the grocery store? All club apples.
Apple clubs set tight controls on pretty much every aspect of the production and marketing of their specific cultivar, from quality standards to packaging. Growers pay club dues or fees of some kind, and the club tightly controls the supply, so that the apples can be sold at a higher price point than traditional varieties.
Now, these specialized varieties are marketed with organized campaigns, so that apple cultivars, or least their trademarked names, are brands just like any other.
The rise of club varieties also means legacy varieties like Cortland are declining amongst commercial growers.
Most commercially grown apples today are grafted onto established root stocks. Grafting allows growers to produce trees that are genetically identical to one another.The part that is grafted on is called the scion and is typically sourced from a nursery.
Depending on the variety, apple trees flower in late spring and early summer. They are self- incompatible and rely on pollinators including bees and butterflies to spread pollen that develops into fruit. This apple flower pollen contains sperm that spreads to the ovary of the next tree for the fertilization that produces seeds. The inner wall of the ovary is the core that surrounds these seeds, and the outer wall becomes the fleshy part of the apple. Apple skin protects these delicate inner structures as they mature on the tree.
Throughout the growing season, apples get larger and more ripe. When harvest time is near, the tree shuts off the supply of nutrients to the apples, which makes them sweeter. Left unpicked, the apples fall off the tree and decompose, adding vital nutrients to the tree that grew them. Harvesting apples, even commercially, is still largely done by hand.
Apple trees grow up to 15 feet tall and can have a 30-foot canopy spread, but most are trellised and managed for smaller canopies to promote fruit growth over vegetative growth.
How Long Until Apple Trees Bear Fruit?
Full-size trees begin producing fruit at around four years old. Some dwarf varieties may bear in just two.
How Long Do Apple Trees Produce Fruit?
Most commercial orchards expect a 20-year harvest from their productive trees, but this can vary depending on the region, growing conditions, orchard management, and apple variety planted.
Apple Soil Needs
Good apple growth depends on the soil, but apple trees thrive in a variety of growing conditions. Although the best apple crop grows in sandy soils with good drainage, trees can still produce in medium-textured clay soil.
Regardless of the type of soil, drainage is important, as is the presence of organic matter. Wet soils with little nutrition lead to shallow, poorly rooted trees that are susceptible to rot and disturbance by wind and weather.
Apple Water Needs
As with many crops, water is a critical element to their success. But how much water do apple trees need?
Young apple seedlings and trees require more water than well-established ones. In general, younger trees require up to 15 gallons of water per week, while most older trees need far less — about one inch of water per week.
The amount of water varies, though, depending on the soil. Apple trees planted in well-drained, sandy soil may need even more water. Trees also need increased water when apple flowers appear and during fruiting.
Regardless of age, water is best delivered slowly through a drip irrigation system to prevent flooding and “wet feet’ that can loosen roots and make them susceptible to rot.
Apple Market Size and Price
The apple market suffered some setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic but appears to be rebounding. Apples made up 5.7% of total produce sales in 2020, with just over 2.4 billion pounds sold in the U.S. for over $3.9 billion in sales. This is a 6.1% increase from 2019, even with a slight decrease in the per-pound price. The projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of global apple production for the next decade is 4%.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, one in every three U.S. grown apples is exported, and Mexico and Canada are the biggest export markets. As U.S. apple growers face increasing competition from foreign producers, new cultivars and the marketing thereof continue to increase.
Apple Uses and End Markets
The most common use of apples is fresh as a snack, but there are other uses, too. Apples can be:
Used as an ingredient in packaged foods Dried for preservation Turned into sauce and juice
Because they are a relatively hardy, stable fruit apples are sold in a variety of places ranging from roadside stands to convenience and warehouse stores.
As with other types of organic produce, demand for organic apples continues to rise, even as prices are approximately 40% higher than their conventionally grown counterparts. An increased focus on the role that food plays in health and wellness as well as the lower sugar and higher fiber content of organic apples appears to be the main drivers of this trend.
Even as demand for apples slowed in the past decade, the amount of acreage devoted to organically grown apples has increased and now makes up around 7% of total acreage devoted to apples. The higher price at every level of the supply chain makes up for the typically lower yield of organic orchards to make this crop a profitable option for farmers who choose to convert to organic orchards.
Apples may be one of the most quintessentially American crops. From Johnny Appleseed to new options on supermarket shelves, apples have long been a locus of exploration and innovation. For U.S. apple growers, that’s truer than it’s ever been.
Take a look at our offerings page to keep an eye out for upcoming orchard investments.
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