Apples have been grown worldwide for thousands of years and like most things, growing practices have evolved significantly. Stemilt is a family-owned company based in Wenatchee, WA and recognized as the nation’s leading expert on apples. They grow apples in Washington State, which leads the U.S. in apple production.
It sounds obvious, and it is; apples grow on apple trees, but not from seeds like one might think! Most of today’s apples are grown from larger nursery (knip) trees and are planted in high densities to maximize use of the land. Apple trees grow in all types of climates, but love an arid climate (when winters are cold and the warm and dry summer days are followed by cool nights), volcanic soils and plentiful water supply, which are all the attributes of the Washington State where we grow our apples. Washington is known around the world for producing high-quality and World Famous apples.
Apple trees are considered fast-growing, but it still takes 3-5 years after planting for a farmer to produce a sizeable crop. Apple must cross-pollinate in order to develop fruit, and honey bees are most commonly used alongside crabapple trees for cross-pollination.
Maturation and Harvest:
Apple harvest begins in mid-August with varieties like Gala and SweeTango® and wraps up with Pink Lady apples in late October. Every variety and orchard location has its own unique start date, which can be predicted after apple bloom in the spring. There are a few telltale signs which let us know when apples are ready for harvest: color can be an indicator and our horticultural team uses multiple tests (such as starch to sugar ratios) and indicators to determine if the apples are ready to pick. Apples are harvested at different maturities to meet the timing for packing. Apples for immediate consumption are picked at full maturity with lots of sugars and low starch reserves. Apples that are to be stored in controlled atmosphere to be packed for winter or later are picked with higher levels of starch, which convert to perfect sugars when the fruit is ready to pack.
Hand-picking is the harvest method in Washington State. Each apple is slightly lifted and twisted off the tree the apple and twist it slightly. The stem is clipped in the field on certain varieties (like Honeycrisp, SweeTango®, and Piñata®) to avoid punctures to the apple. Apples are then placed into a picking bag, emptied into large bins that are strategically placed throughout the orchard and then sorted in the field to discard any apples that have defects that will not meet quality requirements.
The fruit is often harvested two or three times from the same tree throughout the season to keep maturity levels ideal – meaning apples on the outside of the tree are usually farther along than the apples within the inner branches of the tree so they are picked first.
Packing the Apples:
Once apples are picked from the trees, they are sent to the packaging facility where they are either stored in controlled atmosphere storage rooms for a period of time or packed immediately and sent to grocery stores.
During packing, a bin of apples is gently emptied on the packing line. The fruit is the pre-sorted by hand for an initial quality check, washed with a food-grade soap, dried, and brushed. Next, a food-grade wax is applied to apples to replace the fruit natural wax that was washed off and help the fruit retain moisture and give it a shiny appearance (organic fruit does not get waxed).
Now that they are clean and shiny, apples are ready for their photograph! At Stemilt, we the latest technology to size and sort apples. High-definition cameras take multiple images of each piece of fruit rapidly and sends those photos to a computer, where it is quickly analyzed for size, color, and internal and external qualities. Meanwhile, apples that are going to be packed for bulk sale are stickered (look for the ladybug on Stemilt’s stickers) with a scanable price look-up (PLU) sticker. This helps cashiers at your grocery store ring up the fruit easily. The computer analysis is complete and the information it has uncovered sends the fruit to a designated packing lane based on its size, grade, and color criteria.
Our apples are finally ready to be packed. Apples are most commonly packed by hand and into one of many pack types, including bags, clamshells and bulk trays. Then, that type of pack is put into a master carton with a lid in many cases. Each finished carton is stamped with important information about the origin of the fruit, the variety, pack date, size, grade, and grower number. Boxes of fruit are then put onto pallets through an automated process. The pallets are put back into cold rooms where they await shipment on refrigerated trucks. Apples are packed fresh nearly every day thanks to the wonders of controlled atmosphere storage which controls the amount of oxygen the fruit lives in.
So the next time you pick up an apple in the produce aisle, you’re bound to have a new appreciation for how that apple arrived in that very spot!