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Orchard acreage down, but fruit production steady

On the surface, the numbers from a recent survey of Washington fruit trees don't look good.

Acreage is down across the board from previous surveys conducted in 2001, 1993 and 1986.

In the Yakima Valley, for example, as of Jan. 1, 2006, there were 66,738 acres of apple trees in production, versus 90,500 in 2001.

Same goes for every other fruit tree. Down across the board, across the state. In the Yakima Valley, there is one exception in that sweet cherry tree acreage has grown from 12,000 to 13,906 acres since 2001.

But acreage doesn't tell you the whole story, says Joe Ross of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which conducted the survey for the Washington Wine Industry Foundation.

He says you have to look at the number of tress planted per acre and, in Washington state, that's probably one of the most noteworthy trends noted from recent research.

On average there were 391 apple trees planted per acre in 2001. In 2006 that number now stands at 434 trees per acre.

As a result, the total number of apple trees in the state is virtually unchanged from 2001.

Ross says increased densities result from advances in developing dwarf and semi-dwarf species of fruit trees. Smaller trees mean more trees per acre.

Funds for the survey, only the fifth the National Agricultural Statistics Service has ever conducted, came from a $743,050 grant the wine industry obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture back in 2004.

The grant's purpose is to develop tools, such as the survey, to help growers make decisions about planting.

"It's a combined effort by a bunch of different organizations to better inform producers of what the trends in the industry are," Ross says. "I think they (the wine industry) wanted to track the changes to see what new varieties are going in for planting purposes."

Speaking of the wine industry, Ross said that even though acreage numbers have increased for vineyards, they haven't impacted fruit tree plantings.

Survey numbers broken down for Yakima County alone show apples continue to dominate the fruit tree landscape with 48,776 acres of apples, more than any other county in the state.

Other Yakima County highlights show that as of Jan. 1, 2006, 8,288 acres were in production for sweet cherries, 5,920 for Bartlett pears and 2,179 for Winter pears.

Ross conducted the fruit tree survey and said the future shows little anticipated change in the number of fruit trees across the state.

Producers responding to a survey reflecting their intentions for 2006 show that a total of 2,707 acres of apples were to be removed from production, but that 2,662 acres of newly planted apple trees were to be added.

The intentions portion of the survey also shows the continued expansion of sweet cherries, with 177 acres to be taken out of production, but 1,460 to be added in 2006.

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