American Apples: A Comeback Story

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Background: American apple production

There are few legends that have been so ingrained American folklore as that of Johnny Appleseed. Although the mythology that has accumulated over the years has left us with the image of Johnny (real name John Chapman) as a nomadic adventurer—eating an apple with one hand while spreading apple seeds willy-nilly with the other—his story is not only a popular fable but one with considerable relevance to US farmers today. Johnny’s orderly spreading of apple seeds across the American Midwestern frontier in the 1800s laid the groundwork for today’s apple industry. As Michael Pollan has pointed out, "from Chapman's vast planting of nameless cider apple seeds came some of the great American cultivars of the 19th century."

While Johnny’s yeoman work gave Americans access to thousands of varieties, American growers through trial and error eventually settled on the apple varieties with the “most desirable” traits and grafted those trees to expand production. The commercial apple industry went a step further and whittled the number down to just a few dozen marketable varieties for large-scale cultivation. For example, orchards in the state of Washington found that production returns from Delicious varieties were superior to other varieties; as a result, growers favored the planting of Red and Golden Delicious varieties. Fast forward a hundred years and the 15 most popular apple varieties—out of 100 varieties commercially cultivated—account for more than 90 percent of US production.

While the taste buds of US consumers were the long-term losers of this industrial approach to apple farming, the industry (which includes packers and wholesalers) was able to gain economies of scale, allowing the United States to ultimately become one of the world’s leading apple producers by the early twentieth century. At the same time, production became increasingly concentrated across five states, including New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California.

Washington state led the way as the industrial approach was slowly grafted into the roots of the American apple industry. Although commercial apple production didn’t get started in Washington until the late 1880s, the state quickly became the largest commercial producer of apples in the United States by the 1920s. In fact, Washington increased its production by roughly 400 percent even as total US production declined slightly during the second-half of the 20th century.

US apple production is dominated by a few states

China comes calling…

During much of the twentieth century, the United States and France were the leaders in apple production. All that changed following Chinese economic reforms in the 1980s and Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004. Harnessing an available pool of cheap labor and growing government support for agriculture, China and Poland quickly dethroned the previous global leaders. In fact, Poland’s production is now 60 percent higher than France’s output, while China’s production exceeds the production of the remaining top six producers by more than twofold.

Global apple growers have had good reason to expand production in recent years, as global consumption of fresh apples has risen by more than twofold in the past twenty years, with Chinese demand alone having doubled in the past ten years. Though rising household income in developing countries (especially within China) is translating into greater demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, nutritional demands don’t entirely explain growing worldwide demand. On closer inspection, the popularity of fruit juices in developed countries has also created considerable demand for apples, due to the fact that it takes seven kilograms of apples to make one kilogram of apple juice. For example, per capita consumption of apple juice in the US has climbed by roughly 50 percent in the past 20 years.

China produces roughly half the world's apples. N.B. Eurostat lacks data on Turkey's apple production between 1995-1999 and in 2010.

An ocean away, global demand growth has pulled Washington’s apple growers out of one of the worst funks the US apple industry had experienced in recent memory. Since nearly three-fourths of the apples harvested in Washington are fresh-market apples, the doubling of apple prices at the producer level over the past ten years lifted the state’s production value of fresh apples to a record high of $2.31 billion in 2015. (On the other hand, states like Pennsylvania that focus on producing apples for processing, haven’t fared as well as Washington, due to low-cost imports of juice concentrate from China.)

With its dry warm summers and cool winters to minimize pest and disease pressure, Washington has a natural advantage for apple production relative to most of China. Still, the state didn’t escape an industry crisis of the late-’90s. Over that period, bearing acreage in the United States fell by 20 percent. Production in Washington fell by 8 percent during the same time period, as orchards went through a period of forced consolidation. Since then, the state’s orchards have bounced back. Production increased by roughly 27 percent between 2010 and 2014 due, in large part, to improved husbandry, increased management efficiency, and an insatiable global demand for apples.

Farmers benefit as production value of apples jumps up

Washington has innovative orchards, not just software companies

As Chinese production of apples skyrocketed in the 1990s, apple orchards in Washington, which faced a labor cost disadvantage and low US apple prices, began to examine new cultivation approaches, including the trellis system. Apple orchards had been primarily planted with free-standing trees well into the mid-20th century. It wasn’t highly productive, and growers finally realized that they had to embrace change. Nevertheless, the adoption of new technology came slowly because orchards had to be replanted. In fact, it is estimated that only five percent of apple bearing acres in Washington were utilizing high-density planting systems as late as 1993.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that horticulture research started to introduce revolutionary approaches to apple cultivation, enabling growers to increase planting density or address yield loss from dense canopies. The Central Leader and slender spindle systems allowed orchards to increase yield and tree density early on, yet even these planting approaches faced major limitations. In the Central Leader system, mature trees still developed canopies that reduced fruiting in the center of the tree, while the stature of the slender spindle tree translated into moderate yields as trees matured. It wasn’t until the introduction of two trellis planting systems, V-trellis and the Geneva Y-trellis, that growers found a scalable solution.

Washington's apple orchard productivity keeps rising

The various trellis systems, Tall Spindle, Super Spindle, Vertical or V-trellis, Solaxe, Bi-Axis and Fruiting Wall approach were all developed, to one extent or another, to address the three-pronged need for higher production yields, better husbandry, and greater market responsiveness to new apple varieties. According to Cornell’s Cooperative Extension, each system must address the five principles of modern orchard design: high light interception, good light distribution throughout the canopy-feather trees, high early yields-fruiting, simple canopies for partial mechanization, and high planting density.

As a result of adopting these innovations, tree planting density has jumped from around 50-70 trees per hectare to between 1000 and 3000 trees per hectare over the past 50 years. This major productivity windfall has allowed the US to remain a top global producer even after a massive drop in bearing acreage during the past decade. While Yara estimates that average yields of apple orchards worldwide are around 4.5 tons per acre, USDA NASS data shows that average production yields for apple orchards in Washington were 20.10 tons per acre in 2015. What’s more, the average yield of US apple orchards was twice that of China’s growers in 2013.

Washington's apple orchards are much productive than the average US orchard

US consumers are plucking apples in greater varieties

Even as global consumers have been adding more apples to their diets, food enthusiasts and growers in the US have been introducing new varieties and resurrecting long-forgotten ones. For years, Red and Golden Delicious apples dominated the apple varietal mix in the US. The two varieties actually accounted for at least 70 percent of Washington’s apple production up until the late 1980s. But the times they are a-changin’!

A quick scan of the top ten selling apple varieties in the US—Red Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Rome, Cripps Pink/Pink Lady®, Empire—already provide clear evidence to this transformation. US consumers are not only incorporating more Fuji, Gala, and Honeycrisp apples into their diets; they’re also finding‚ in some cases actually rediscovering, more exotic types of apple such as the Esopus Spitzenburg, reportedly a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Innovative breeders have introduced new varieties to the US marketplace, such as Cosmic Crisp, Ambrosia, and Jazz, to address the consumer’s increasing demand for a great-tasting apple: fresh coloring, firm texture, and crispness.

In fact, Nielsen data showed that of the top-selling apple varieties in 2014, the only three apple types to deliver sales growth were recently developed varieties. The quest for the perfect apple is pushing breeders beyond what would have been imagined by growers just a few years ago. One group of breeders in the US are trying to replicate the health benefits of antioxidant-rich, red-fleshed apples of Central Asia without their tartness. Further afield, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. in Canada has developed a non-browning Arctic apple. These innovations are coming to apples, though whether consumers will accept them is a separate story.


While a recent trade agreement with China, which re-opens the country’s markets to US apple imports, may or not make change the landscape for US apple production, some producers aren’t waiting around to see. Though they’ve significantly improved productivity, US growers can’t afford to be complacent. Global competition remains fierce, consumers are eager for new varieties, and minimum wage rates are expected to rise in various US states.

The adoption of trellis cultivation systems, including improved rootstock use, have significantly helped to improve the productivity of US apple orchards. However, the inherent labor intensity required for large-scale apple production will require further innovation if the industry plans to stay competitive with low-cost producers, such as China, Turkey, and Poland. While it remains to be seen whether robotics can become a feasible solution for apple cultivation and harvesting, the industry would benefit a great deal from the technology.

In the coming years, growing capital investment required to drive orchard productivity could encourage further orchard consolidation. Even so, smaller growers can remain relevant by planting premium apple varieties that garner higher prices. The good news is that new cultivation methods have cut the time between planting and fruiting in half for many growers. As a result, growers have more flexibility to repurpose their orchards for new varieties. The good ol’ days are unlikely to return for US apple growers; but increased productivity and variety... now that’s another matter.

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