The apple production and harvesting industry is an important and growing sector of the global agricultural industry. Apples are among the most widely grown fruits in the world and their production has steadily increased in recent years, driven by increasing consumer demand for apples in both fresh and processed forms. This report will provide an overview of the global apple production and harvesting industry, including an analysis of the key market trends, market size, production, and harvesting methods. It will also explore the challenges and opportunities facing the industry, as well as the current technological developments in the sector.
Total apple market:
The total apple market can be addressed both in terms of actual production (tons of apples) and the total value of said production (USD), and both of these parameters can be broken down on a geographic basis. These overall market figures are useful for communicating with investors and informing strategic decisions relative to beachhead market selection and geographic expansion.
TABLE 1: Top 10 Global (country) production by tons and estimated value in 2020 according to FAOSTAT
Production by tons
Gross Production by Estimated Value ($1000 USD)
For an additional resource visit this link for a global heat map of production quantities of apples by country.
Production share of Apples by Global region in 2021:
Domestic USA Apple Production by State
TABLE 2: Domestic (US) production by state 2021 according to USDA NASS metrics.
Production (in Acres Bearing)
Production (Measured in lbs)
Yield (Measured in lb/acre)
Source: USDA NASS
Apples are Washington’s largest agricultural product producing more than 80% of the fresh US apple crop. Therefore the most important state to understand in terms of production and variety.
According to the 2019 USDA Certified Organic Summary, an estimated 657 farms in the United States produced 831 million pounds of certified organic apples in 2019 with a sales value of $451.2 million. [Source] Globally, the apple market was on the rise and in 2019 reached $78.8B value. [Source]
The total addressable market for apples is an important consideration for general presentations. Understanding the realistic addressable market for specific harvest automation technologies is equally important, as it will help companies to realistically set pricing and identify opportunities for revenue. Knowing the total production of apples and the GDP of said production on a global and geographic basis can help investors make informed decisions about where to invest, as well as inform strategic decisions about where to enter the market.
While apples are worth globally about ~80B, this figure is representative of the sales value of apples produced, not the costs of production. While there is value in understanding the number of apples picked/harvested per year by region (state/country), by apple type (red delicious, honey crisp, etc.) and the total dollar value of apples in retail and good service, the true addressable market for harvest automation technologies will be proportional to the amount spent on harvest labor.
To better understand the above figures and accurately extrapolate the value of a specific technology, it’s critical to understand crop budgets. Farms rely upon budgets (see below) to make profits, and understanding where a technical solution can create savings within the operating budget and/or additional profit for the farm operation is going to be critical to realistically sizing the market.
Check out some of the free resources below to develop a more granular understanding of true Total Addressable Market, Serviceable Available Market, and Serviceable Obtainable Market.
The challenges that growers face today are acute, and if you build a good solution, growers will buy.
Current Solutions and Key Opportunities
The apple harvesting process is ripe for automation, and there are several solutions available for growers to choose from. While current solutions are effective, there are still several key opportunities for improvement, including harvesting efficiency, crop management, cost reduction, data collection and analysis, and integration with other technologies. By continuing to invest in these areas, growers can improve the quality and yield of their fruit while reducing labor costs and staying competitive in an increasingly challenging market.
Some Solutions on the market (Feb 2023)
Automated apple harvesting is an area of intense development, with a variety of innovative solutions available on the market today. These range from robotic arms that can pick and sort apples to autonomous vehicles that can navigate orchards and harvest fruit. Key players in this space include Advanced Farm, Ripe Robotics, FFR Robotics and the status quo- harvesting platforms. While current solutions are effective, there is still room for improvement in terms of harvesting efficiency, crop management, cost reduction, data collection and analysis, and integration with other technologies. By continuing to invest in these areas, growers can improve the quality and yield of their fruit while reducing labor costs and staying competitive in an increasingly challenging market.
One of the key opportunities for improvement in the apple harvesting process is harvesting efficiency. While current solutions are effective, there is still room for improvement in terms of speed and accuracy. By improving harvesting efficiency, growers can operate at higher margins across all operation expenses.
Crop Management & Yield Mapping
Another key opportunity is crop management. By collecting and analyzing data on factors such as weather, soil conditions, and fruit maturity, growers can make more informed decisions about when and how to harvest their crops. By collecting and analyzing data on factors such as weather, soil conditions, and fruit maturity, growers can enhance the quality and yield of their fruit while reducing waste and increasing margins.
Cost Reduction By Improved Tech
Cost reduction is another important opportunity for improvement. By reducing the cost of automated harvesting solutions, growers can make the technology more accessible and increase adoption rates.
Data Collection And Analysis
Another key opportunity is the use of data collection and analysis to optimize the harvesting process. By collecting and analyzing data on factors such as weather, soil conditions, and fruit maturity, growers can make more informed decisions about when and how to harvest their crops.
Integration With Other Technologies
Finally, there is a need for better interoperability and an opportunity to integrate automation solutions with other technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. By combining these technologies, growers can develop more advanced algorithms and sensors that can identify and pick fruit more quickly and accurately. They can also use these technologies to optimize the timing and frequency of harvests and improve the overall quality and yield of the fruit.
Key Opportunities were based on opinion and sources below:
- Automation and robotics in the cultivation of pome fruit: Where do we stand today?
- Standards for Apples Marketed within Washington State
- Robot Ready Canopies
- US Apple Annual Review
There are several innovative solutions available for apple harvesting automation, with major companies and up-and-coming startups working to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their technology. By continuing to invest in areas such as harvesting efficiency, crop management, cost reduction, data collection and analysis, and integration with other technologies, growers can improve the quality and yield of their fruit while reducing labor costs and staying competitive in an increasingly challenging market.
In order to understand the challenges that farmers face, it is essential to understand standard horticultural practices and grower metrics.
Apple growers today get paid based on fruit size and color (not on flavor!) This is important to understand because it is the number one driver behind the design and development of the apple orchard and places further emphasis on why the below are important to the farmer. All of the activities should be looked at to help understand the how and the why different technology elements fit within the broader production system.
Apple Pruning -
- Apple pruning is important because it promotes healthy growth, improves fruit quality and quantity, prevents pests and diseases, and allows for proper air circulation and light penetration.
- Pruning & Training - Apples. A paper from Washington State University further explaining the process.
- Apple Production Systems - Video:
Apple Orchard Trellis
An apple orchard trellis is a structure designed to support apple trees as they grow and bear fruit. It consists of a series of posts, wires, and other materials that are arranged in a specific pattern to maximize the growth and productivity of the apple trees.
The main purpose of an apple orchard trellis is to provide support for the weight of the apple tree branches and fruit. This helps to prevent the branches from breaking under the weight of the fruit and also makes it easier for farmers to harvest the apples.
There are several different types of apple orchard trellises, but the most common is the T-trellis. This trellis consists of two main components: the end post and the fruiting wire. The end post is typically made of treated wood or metal and is set in the ground at the end of each row of trees. The fruiting wire is then strung between the end posts at a height of about 8 to 10 feet above the ground.
Along the fruiting wire, additional support wires or strings are strung in a horizontal pattern, with each string spaced about 12 to 16 inches apart. The apple tree branches are then trained to grow along these support wires, which helps to distribute the weight of the fruit and keep the branches from breaking.
In addition to providing support for the apple trees, an orchard trellis can also help to improve the quality of the fruit. By training the branches to grow along the support wires, farmers can create a more open canopy that allows for better light penetration and air flow, which can lead to more even ripening and improved fruit quality.
Overall, an apple orchard trellis is an essential component of modern apple farming, helping to improve productivity, reduce fruit damage, and increase fruit quality.
Other types of Trellises to look into are V trellis systems and Angled trellis systems which might create a new engineering dynamic.
Vertical vs Angled end-of-row anchor systems:
- End of row anchor systems keep rows stabilized in one direction allowing the trellis to be supported.
- Most Common are an Angle Brace:
- And H-Brace:
- Apple trees are a long term investment. Most contemporary orchards in WA are designed to produce for 12-15 years, but there are older orchards that have been in production for 20+ years. The initial cost for a farmer is high, and the yield (and corresponding return on investment) is spread out over the course of two decades.
- Penn State paper on Apple Production
Robot Ready Canopies:
- “Robot ready canopies are canopies where the fruit can be easily seen and detached without damage.” - Washington State University paper defining “Robot Ready canopies” in greater depth: here.
- Other considerations include branch structure, automated pruning, leaf removal, bud and flower count, etc.
- Apple thinning is the process of removing excess apples from a tree during the growing season. This helps ensure that the remaining apples are of a higher quality and size, as the tree is not overburdened with too many fruit.
- Apple thinning also helps to reduce the risk of branch breakage due to the weight of the apples, as well as reduce the risk of pests and diseases, which can spread more easily when there are too many apples on a single tree
- Apple thinning is done chemically or manually today, and the timing of apple thinning can coincide with that of cherry harvest, which can result in labor shortages for this work.
- Hand thinning is too expensive and there isn’t enough labor, so chemical thinning is the predominant method today. Hand thinning is done post chemical thinning to “clean up” and “fine tune.”
- USDA paper on apple fruit thinning here
Apple Harvest & Metrics:
- Many apple varieties are grown commercially in the United States, and these varieties vary in taste and texture. The pricing for different varieties reflect consumer preferences and production and storage factors. The majority of U.S. apples are grown in Washington state, where data on over 20 varieties are collected and published by USApple.
- In 2018/19, the Red Delicious variety was the most produced, accounting for 25% of Washington's apple production. This is largely due to existing older orchards that are still highly productive. More recently established orchards, however, are producing newer varieties that are more popular with consumers, including Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp.
- Honeycrisp apples are known for their firm texture and sweet and tart flavor, leading to a growing demand and higher prices, at $53.39 for a 40-pound box in 2018/19. This is partly due to the increased labor costs associated with harvesting, as these apples do not ripen uniformly and require multiple passes to harvest.
- The average apple harvest rate is approximately 4.5 tons per acre, with the rate varying significantly depending on the type of apple, the degree of mechanization, and the skill level of the crew.
- A club variety are known as such because some varieties are “club” or “proprietary” varieties. They are patented and trademarked and sold exclusively by specific companies.
- Mostly a production and marketing concept - only producers who aquire a license are allowed to sell club apple varieties under the brand name. Where the license fee is typically used to finance the R&D and marketing behind the corresponding club apple. [Source]
- There is some concern in the industry about the increasing popularity of managed varieties and concentration of control with larger growers, but there’s no denying that public funding for apple breeding is shrinking. At the same time, breeders and growers have to keep pace with changing consumer tastes.
- Pink Lady, an Australian apple, was the first club variety to have a trademarked name where growers must have a license to grow, pack and market the fruit, and to date has been the most successful, according to Kemp (Ontario Apple Farmer) [Source]
Next, it’s important to understand the basic economics of apple production
- How does an Apple orchard make money?
- Apple orchards make money by selling their apples to wholesalers, retailers, and other buyers. The success of the business will depend on the yields achieved, the quality of produce, the price, and the distribution networks they are able to access.
- Additionally, apple growers must consider other costs such as labor, fertilizer, and pest management, land rent if leasing, as well as the potential for unexpected weather or market conditions.
Apple Cost Estimate - Production
- Harvest costs—as a percent of total labor costs—ranged from 28.5 percent for Granny Smith to 34.8 percent for Honeycrisp. [Source]
- Other costs to consider as a higher percentage of for apple farms are fertilizer, pesticides, the cost of land, buildings and equipment.
- ERS USDA report: Adjusting to Higher Labor costs in Selected U.S Fresh Fruit and Vegetable industries.
- The costs of Apple Production as recorded by the Michigan State Extension
- Supplement to Adjusting to Higher Labor Costs in Selected U.S. FreshFruit and Vegetable Industries: Case Studies
- Apple Production Cost Around the World, a study done by Washington State University.
Note: The exact cost breakdown can vary depending on factors such as location, size of the operation, and method of production. The cost of apple production varies depending on the region, with higher costs in the Northeast and West regions and lower costs in the South and Midwest regions.
Apple Crop Budget
We highly recommend that you read two or more crop budgets before having a conversation with an apple farmer to better understand their needs and costs.
Understand that farm economics and budgets vary widely between individual farm operations, Regardless, starting with a few publicly available extension crop budgets to understand what is considered “normal” is immensely helpful to understanding farm businesses.
Apple Quality Considerations
Apple producers are generally price takers, not price makers (with rare exceptions.) The value that a producer receives for his apples is dependent upon variety (Hone and apple quality and time-of-year. Value and production costs vary substantially by type (Honeycrisp are far more valuable than Red Delicious, but also far more costly to produce) and the price that a grower receives per apple is dependent upon apple quality. Quality standards vary by geography and by purchaser.
Apple Harvest Timing
March - April
June - July
August - October
In Washington State, apples are typically harvested from August to October. Thinning usually takes place from June to July, while blooming occurs from March to April.
Interviews with Growers
- Interview with Keith Veselka. Owner and partner at NWFM, established in 2018, is a locally owned, full-service farm investment and property management company. Combined, owners Keith Veselka and Greg Newman bring over 40 years of crop production experience unique to the Pacific Northwest. With a mindset of “we farm it like we own it”, the NWFM team has the ability to couple seasoned farm management and cooperative buying power with boutique hometown service that allows for unmatched nimbleness in business. A hands-on approach for the day-to-day logistics on ranches managed by NWFM provides real-time reporting and transparency with all clients. Collaborative efforts between leadership make sure all efforts focus back to their core values of profitable and regenerative agriculture.
- Interview with Jeff Cleveringa. Jeff has served on the Board of Directors for the Good Fruit Grower magazine and is past President of the Board of Directors for the Washington State Horticulture Association. He currently serves as a commissioner for the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission, WSU sweet cherry breeding program, and the WSU apple breeding program
- Interview with Ines and Mark Hanarahan. Ines Hanrahan, Ph.D., has served as Executive Director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC) since August 17, 2018. She has been with the Commission since 2005. Ines was the Commission’s project manager prior to becoming Executive Director. Dr. Hanrahan provides administrative leadership to the organization, oversight of the WTFRC staff, and contributes to strategic planning for the WTFRC. Mark is an apple and cherry grower in Washington.
Consideration for Harvesting Automation/Mechanization
There is clearly a role for harvest mechanization and/or automation to address this challenge. Technologists designing for this problem should consider:
- Proper row-spacing: Apple trees must be spaced a certain distance apart to ensure that the trees are able to receive adequate sun and airflow.
- Trellis and tree architecture: See How do robots deal with posts, wires, branches that obstruct vision? Some trees branch in chaotic ways, others have fairly regular growth - how can a robot be designed to handle the full spectrum of tree architecture? [See above for more info on trellis systems]
- Fruit transport: After apples are picked they either go to the packing line and a grocery store or to a Controlled Atmosphere storage room. Most apples are shipped in fiberboard boxes, loose-packed, on molded trays, or in polyethylene bags. To help protect a shipment from extreme weather situations, boxes should be stacked tightly together, in an offset pattern to reduce contact with floors and walls. [Source] [Source - Stemilit)
- Stem punctures: This is where a stem or twig end has punctured the skin of an adjacent fruit, fairly recently. Usually the causal projection is obvious when the fruit is still on the tree. A WSU Tree Fruit study concluded that stem clipping can significantly reduce total cullage by a couple basis points. [Source]
- Pick rate requirements: Harvesting apples requires a certain number of picks per hour to ensure efficient and profitable operations. The general rule of thumb has been that it should take 2 seconds to pick 1 apple, but as labor shortages and costs increase, this rate is getting more competitive. Workers on platforms with conveyor belts can pick much faster than this - up to 3-4 apples every 2 seconds.
- Platforms: Platforms are used today in many apple orchards to enable people to harvest apples more efficiently and safely. Robotics companies must consider the platform+people competition factor. More on platforms from Penn State Extension
- Weather considerations: Apple trees must be protected from extreme temperatures, heavy rain and winds, and hail.
- Ruggedness: Apple orchards are often located in rugged terrain and require equipment and machinery that can withstand such conditions.
- Services: In most cases, farmers rely on mechanics on-site and do not have access to electronic/robotic engineers.
- Language barriers: Crews often do not speak English fluently, and may not be able to read or write.
- Connectivity: High speed internet and high bandwidth cellular services are far from a given in rural areas.
- Washington Apple Bins - box sizes in Washington state. The differences between plastic vs wood, costs, and dimensions to consider.
Benefits of Automation vs Manual labor:
- Increased efficiency: Automated apple harvesters could potentially pick apples for longer periods of time and more consistently than manual labor, increasing the overall efficiency of the harvest process.
- Reduced labor costs: Automation solves a critical challenge in the ag labor industry, and allows farms and farmers to fill a gap that already exists between labor we need and labor that is available.
- Improved working conditions: Automated apple harvesters can reduce the physical strain and repetitive motions associated with manual apple picking, leading to improved working conditions for employees and potentially reducing the risk of injury.
- Consistent quality: Automated apple harvesters can pick apples more consistently than manual labor, leading to improved quality control and a higher-quality product for consumers and an ability to pick on an exact color line (rather than relying on hundreds of different human eyes) AND the potential for in-field defect sorting which might reduce grower costs by increasing take rate by the processor.
- Increased reliability: Automated apple harvesters can operate 24/7, rain or shine, and are less likely to miss a harvest due to illness or other absences, increasing the reliability of the harvest process.
- To find a solution, this paper addresses current as well as future automation possibilities for the main orchard tasks as a profitable alternative to human labor.
- This paper contains an overall review of the research and developments that have been performed to automate each major activity (e.g., pruning, thinning, spraying, harvesting and mobile navigating) in the cultivation of pome fruit.
Multifunctional Robot Roadmap - Washington Tree Fruit Research
The research, here, discusses the importance of the tree fruit industry in Washington State and the challenges it faces in terms of labor-related risks and increasing costs of production. It outlines the potential benefits of creating a multifunctional robot for harvest automation, crop load management, pruning, tree training, insect and disease scouting, and precision agriculture
Consideration for Pests and Disease
Pests and Diseases
Pests and diseases are major challenges for apple farmers, and there are a number of common pests and diseases that can cause significant damage to apple crops if not properly monitored and managed. The top five pests and diseases that apple farmers must fight include:
- Apple Scab - Apple scab is a fungal disease caused by the fungus Venturia inaequalis that affects the leaves, fruit, and twigs of apple trees. It can cause leaves to become discolored, shriveled, and deformed as well as cause premature fruit drop. Apple scab can be managed through chemical and biological control measures, such as pruning and fungicide applications.
- Fire Blight - Fire blight is a bacterial disease caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora which is spread by irrigation, dew, and rain. It can cause flowers and branches to quickly become brown and shriveled, and can spread to entire trees if left untreated. Fire blight can be managed with pruning, chemical applications, and biological control measures. Out of control blight is the biggest existential threat to an apple orchard and can require an entire orchard be ripped out.
- Codling Moth - Codling moth is a common pest that can cause significant damage to apple crops. It is caused by the larvae of the codling moth when they feed on the fruit (Cydia pomonella) and can cause damage to the fruit. Codling moth can be managed through chemical and biological control measures, such as pheromone traps, insecticides, and beneficial predators. Mating disruption (via pheromone dispensers) is the preferred way to manage codling moth. [Source - WSU Tree Fruit]
- Apple Mildew - Apple mildew is a fungal disease caused by Podosphaera leucotricha that affects apple trees, leading to a powdery white or grayish coating on leaves, buds, and fruit. It causes leaves to turn yellow and fruit to become discolored and distorted, leading to reduced yields and decreased fruit quality. Early detection, pruning, thinning, and fungicide applications are necessary to manage the disease and prevent its spread, making it a serious threat to apple orchards that requires proactive management to ensure healthy and productive trees.. [Source - WSU Tree Fruit]
- Mites - Mites are small arthropods that can cause damage to apple crops. They can cause damage to the fruit and leaves tree, as well as reduce yields and cause premature fruit drop. Mites can be managed through chemical and biological control measures, such as dusting with sulfur, insecticides, and beneficial predators. [Source - OMAFRA]
If these pests and diseases are not managed properly, the outcome can be devastating for apple farmers. Damage to the fruit, leaves, and twigs can cause reduced yields, premature fruit drop, and even the death of trees. In order to protect their crops, apple farmers must be prepared to fight these pests and diseases.
Consideration for Climate Change
Climate Change and Weather Impacting Apple Farmers
Climate change and weather are having a significant impact on apple farmers both domestically and globally. Here are five reasons why:
“From late-spring frosts in western Michigan to triple-digit heat in the Pacific Northwest, apple growers saw a nearly 19 percent drop in fresh-market apple holdings in June 2021 compared with June 2020, according to recent production statistics released by the Agriculture Department.”
- Shorter/Longer Growing Seasons - Warmer temperatures are leading to earlier springs and later falls, which creates a longer growing season, at least in Washington. The earlier springs lead to prolonged frost protection windows, which results in an increase in expenses that isn’t necessarily accompanied by an increase in production. Similarly, late falls and late frosts can result in bud/flower die off that impacts that subsequent seasons’ yields.
- Heat Stress - Extreme heat events are causing heat stress in apple trees, leading to decreased photosynthesis, reduced productivity, and even death of trees. The primary concern for the apple industry is around pack out and fruit quality (sunburn, color degradation, etc.)
- Water Availability - Warmer temperatures and more frequent and intense droughts are leading to decreased water availability, which can cause trees to suffer from water stress and lead to reduced yields.
- Pest and Disease - Warmer temperatures are leading to increased pest and disease pressure, which can cause decreased pack out (increased disease and lower fruit quality), decreased yields and even the death of trees.
- Extreme Weather Events - Extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and hail, are causing damage to orchards and leading to decreased yields and increased costs for farmers.
The effects of climate change and weather on apple farmers can be devastating and can lead to lost income and even the loss of entire orchards. It is essential that apple farmers are aware of the risks and are prepared to mitigate them.
- Voices of the Valley
- Do you want to be on the cutting edge of the latest agtech trends? Or be the first to hear about a hot, new agtech startup? Or know the ins and outs of the latest and greatest technologies in agriculture? The Voices of the Valley Podcast has you covered! Join agtech experts Dennis Donohue (aka “the godfather of agtech”) and Candace Wilson as they interview leading entrepreneurs, innovative farmers and industry analysts to pull back the curtain on all things agriculture and technology.
- Link to podcast: here.
- Future of Agriculture
- This show explores the people, companies, and ideas shaping the future of the agriculture industry. Every week, Tim Hammerich talks to the farmers, founders, innovators and investors to share stories of agtech, sustainability, resiliency and the future of food. We believe innovation is an important part of the future of agriculture, and real change comes from collaboration between scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers. Lead with optimism, but also bring data! This show explores the people, companies, and ideas shaping the future of the agriculture industry. Every week, Tim Hammerich talks to the farmers, founders, innovators and investors to share stories of agtech, sustainability, resiliency and the future of food.
- Link to podcast: here.
Pruning Apples Like A Pro – How to Prune Ambrosia Apples 6 part series
In his four part video series, expert horticulturist, Steve Brown provides orchardists and Ambrosia apple pickers tips and tricks to make the most of the picking experience. In this first video, Steve discusses his efficient and effective approach to make the most money. He also covers what to wear and cautions pickers to ensure proper hydration while picking Ambrosia apples.
In the first of two parts, expert horticulturist Steve Brown gives Ambrosia growers the lowdown on how to properly thin, or prune, apple trees. Steve explains his systematic approach, including fruit handling and offers tips and tricks to streamline the thinning process to ensure the best quality apples are left on the tree. Orchardists and apple farmers will particularly find this information useful for thinning Ambrosia apples.
- 2022 Apple Annual Review by the usapple.org
- Robot Ready Canpoies - With labor at harvest a major challenge to the global tree fruit industry, robotic harvesters are close to hitting the orchard.
- Walt Duflock’s Blog - Blog by Walt Duflock, who is the VP of Innovation at Western Growers Association, a 5th-generation family farm, and 25 years at high-growth SV startups
- Agriculture is for the People - Newsletter by Connie Bowen, partner at Farmhand Ventures
- Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission RFP Page - WTFRC issues annual RFPs that include access to researchers, agronomists, growers, and funding.
- Farmhand Ventures Application