SEATTLE (MainStreet) -- Apple picking is as much about the state you're picking in as it is about the apples in your basket.
Trees across the nation are heavy with reasons why this is going to be a bounce-back year for apples and apple picking. Last year's U.S. apple crop came in at 221.5 million bushels, or roughly 9.3 billion pounds. That was well below the 9.7 billion pounds that came in during 2009 and the 9.6 billion that graced trees in 2008.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 226.5 million bushels or 9.5 billion pounds. The U.S. Apple Association industry group is a bit more optimistic in its assessment, predicting 3% growth, to 227.5 million bushels, or just a shade below 9.6 billion pounds. That prediction is right in line with what U.S. orchards have produced on average within the past five years.
The U.S. produces more than 100 varieties of apples commercially and almost 2,500 varieties altogether, but a svelte 15 breeds of apple eat up 90% of U.S. apple production. If you're not a fan of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith, Cortland, Empire, Gala, Idared, Ginger Gold, Jonagold, Fuji, Jonathan, Rome, Braeburn or Honeycrisp apples, you're taking a small bite of the $1.9 billion fresh apple market.
That doesn't mean there's not an orchard newcomer every so often. Honeycrisp, for example, came onto the scene only 20 years ago after being developed at the University of Minnesota's horticultural research center and has made the university more than $8 million off the $1-per-tree royalties charged to orchards. That money goes back into a university apple breeding program that grows between 10,000 to 15,000 varieties each year before paring them down to 15 varieties it hopes will produce at least one sellable apple. When it works, it can result in a variety as successful as the SweeTango -- a hybrid of the Honeycrisp and the U of M-produced Zestar apple that gives the university a 4.5% cut of tree revenue.
Minnesota's apple growers are a bit modest and don't like to to go blabbing about their production numbers. That's a bit of a shame, as the home of Honeycrisp, Zestar, SnowSweet and others has more than 25 varieties of apples, 150 orchards and a harvest season that extends from late July to early October.
Of the states that did report their apple numbers to the USDA for its National Agricultural Statistics Service's noncitrus fruit and nuts report back in July, we picked the top 10 and put them into a list of apple vacation destinations ripe for the picking: