ALEX DOWSE seems as happy as a baseball player who just pitched a no-hitter. Sporting a cap, he grasps a McIntosh apple and talks about this season's abundant crop.
"This year all the factors in growing apples came together," says Mr. Dowse, whose Dowse Orchards has been in his family for more than 200 years in Sherborn, Mass. The last crop that even approached this year's was in 1988, he recollects.
Across the nation, apple farmers like Dowse are seeing the fruits of their labor this season. As farmers fill their baskets, consumers are rolling out the pie crusts in celebration.
Apple production in the United States is up 4 percent from last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The expected yield is about 245 million bushels. A higher yield - as well as lower European demand (exports to Europe doubled last year because of a freeze-damaged crop there) - mean lower prices than last year.
How are all these apples marketed? A little more than half the apple crop in the US is marketed fresh. The rest is processed into juice (about 22 percent), applesauce (15 percent), frozen slices (3 percent), and dried and other products (2 percent). Most consumers get their fresh apples from Washington State, which along with California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia produce more than 80 percent of the total domestic crop.
And America's apple appetite seems to be growing. According to the USDA, per-capita consumption of apples and apple products has been rising almost 2 percent each year since 1970. In addition to growth in cider and juice consumption, marketers cite success in promoting apples' nutritional image to today's health-conscious public.
One trend is new varieties. "Consumers are always interested in new varieties," says Dan Baum of the International Apple Institute. "It's all a matter of taste."
"Specialty varieties overall have a renewed interest with the consumer," says Vickey Scharlau, vice president of the Washington State Apple Commission. "People are relying on Golden, Red, and Grannies, but they're looking at these newer varieties almost like a different piece of fruit ... that is to be savored and appreciated like a dessert."
Tom Vorbeck knows a lot about varieties. His business, called Applesource, in Chapin, Ill., offers 200 different specialty apples by mail, from "antiques" to the newest varieties. He grows apples with names like Black Gilliflower, Downingland, Keepsake, Lady Sweet, Hubbardston Nonsuch, Braeburn, Sweet Sixteen, Kandil Sinap, Newton Pippins, and Esopus Spitzenburg.
Mr. Vorbeck says that in the national picture, "Gala and Fuji are hot stories at present." Gala, a light golden yellow with a pinkish-orange blush, is very sweet. Fuji, the No. 1 seller in Japan, is the "best-keeping sweet apple in the world," Vorbeck says. Plantings have been significant of these varieties in the West, he says. Someday Fuji will threaten the popularity of the the Red Delicious, he predicts. "It's on the rise like a rocket."
East of the Mississippi, farmers are branching out by offering more varieties as well. In Michigan, New York, and New England - traditionally McIntosh country - many farmers see a future in the Empire [see photo, upper left], a cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious. It's dark red and known to "crack" when you bite into it.
With the Empire's parents ranked No. 1 (Red Delicious) and No. 3 (McIntosh) in national popularity, they figure it's bound to win. (No. 2 is Golden Delicious.)
"Growers have been telling us that the Empire crop may triple within five years," reports Patrick O'Connor, spokesman for the Michigan Apple Committee.
"It's movin'," says George Nagel, president of the New England and New York Apple Commission of the Empire apple. For a new variety of apple to make its way into the mainstream takes years, he notes.
Another trend is new export markets. The US is the world's No. 2 apple exporter (after France), producing about 10 to 15 percent of the world's apples, according to the USDA.
Michigan and New York cite successful inroads with the Empire into the United Kingdom, where Granny Smith is also popular. Washington exports Red Delicious and Gala to Taiwan; Fuji to East Asia.
"Mexico is now our No. 1 export market," says Ms. Scharlau. "We're thrilled."