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Originally published January 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 19, 2007 at 1:16 PM

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Apple prices may rise because of California freeze

It's not just oranges that are likely to cost more because of a freeze in California that citrus growers estimate will cost them $1 billion.

The Associated Press

YAKIMA -- It's not just oranges that are likely to cost more because of a freeze in California that citrus growers estimate will cost them $1 billion.

Washington state growers, who have their own weather problems, and packers report growing demand for apples and pears, and one industry official says apple prices at supermarkets could rise by as much as five cents a pound.

Grocers have been replacing oranges and tangerines with apples and pears in their advertising since the freeze earlier this week, and Pacific Northwest apple packers say sales have been growing.

"The calls really felt good for the apple and pear industry," said Rick Plath, president of Washington Fruit & Produce Co. in Yakima. "Not to wish anything bad for the citrus industry, but it was a causal relationship between the cold weather in California and increased interest in Northwest fruits."

"It's a shame, but something has to fill the void," said Roger Pepperl of Wenatchee, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., one of the region's largest orchard operators and shipping companies. "I am sure that will have an impact on prices.

"Export prices will increase as well."

Pepperl said Stemilt sells 11 million 40-pound boxes a year, but he expects to ship an extra two or three loads of apples to each of his customers in the next few weeks.

"We are moving fruit at a rapid pace," he said.

Apples, oranges, bananas and mangos are prime stock for groceries because they are relatively affordable and available all year, Pepperl said. Florida grows mostly juice oranges, so grocers are turning to apples and other fruit to replace eating oranges on their shelves.

Dave Carlson, executive director of the state Apple Commission, says apple prices could go up by as much as five cents a pound for consumers, although he added that some grocers may absorb the cost increases because apples are already one of their more profitable items.

Some growers may benefit from the rising prices, but others already have sold most of their crop, industry officials said.

Apple prices already were strong because growers harvested about 95.4 million boxes of eating apples last fall, down from about 102 million in 2006, and there wasn't any carry-over, said Carlson and Miles Kohl, manager of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

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As warehouse stocks are sold, Pepperl said packers may increase their price by $1 to $2 a box.

He added that the window is short, however, because apples grown in the southern hemisphere will be available to grocers in the spring.

Meanwhile, unusually cold temperatures with daytime highs reach in the 20s have hampered tree pruning in much of Eastern Washington, making the job harder while reducing the hours and pay of the workers.

"When it gets into the single digits (early in the morning), it's too cold for workers to last too long before fingers, toes and faces get cold," said Tom Gausman, vice president of AgriMACS of Pateros, which manages about 3,000 acres of orchards from Brewster to Kennewick.

As a result pruning can't begin until later in the day -- and it's still bitterly cold.

"I feel like I want to move out of state, to somewhere where it's warm," Adan Garnica, 25, of Wenatchee, said Wednesday as he pruned pear trees in East Wenatchee.

Garnica, who is paid $3.50 a tree, said he had been making about $400 a week, about $200 less than he normally gets as a speedy, top-of-the-line pruner. For average workers, pruning normally pays $400 a week but is currently closer to $300 a week because of the reduced hours, Gausman said.

Cold snaps are not unusual, but long ones can work a hardship on pruners' families.

Kent Waliser, manager of Sagemoor Farms, which owns orchards from north of Pasco to Mattawa, said he put his crew to work Tuesday despite the cold so they could earn money for their families.

Broetje Orchards near Walla Walla has been lending workers as much as $500 apiece to help them through lean times, a total of about $15,000 as of Tuesday, company officials said.

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