According to the old proverb, we’re supposed to eat an apple a day to stay healthy. But the business of growing apples might provide something worth just as much to animal agriculture: Insights into how to stay relevant and profitable.

Here’s the profitability part: Apples harvested in 2012 in Washington state—the nation’s No. 1 apple-grower—were the first such crop in state history to top the $2 billion mark, according to newly released USDA data.

Washington grows about 65 percent of the nation’s apples, and along with being the state’s most valuable farm commodity, its value is surging. In 2010, the apple crop was valued at $1.5 billion; in 2011, it grew to $1.9 billion; and in 2012 the fresh apple crop totaled more than $2.25 billion in revenue to the state’s growers. Add in the value of last year’s harvest that was diverted to production of apple juice, applesauce and related products, and the total Washington apple crop exceeded $3.4 billion last year, according to the Washington Growers Clearing House.

Although Washington’s economy today is measured by the performance of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon, for decades apples were not only the state’s symbol of agricultural productivity, they were the central commodity supporting the regional economy. The climate in eastern and central part of the state features the hot summer temperatures and cool fall nights ideal for producing apples (and cherries, peaches, plums and apricots, as well as hybrids such as nectarines, plumcots and pluots).

Of course, one key reason the apple crop was so profitable last year was the unseasonably cold, wet weather that damaged the crops in New York and Michigan, Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, told the Associated Press.

“Last year was an anomaly,” he admitted. “Everything lined up perfectly.”

Change on the ground

But that’s not the only reason, and therein lies a lesson for other agricultural producers. The Washington Growers’ analysis identified three key factors contributing to the ongoing success of the state’s apple growers, when other commodities have been hard hit by market volatility and foreign competition. They are:

  • Innovation. Since the 1990s, when the handwriting was on the wall concerning category competitiveness, Washington growers dramatically increased production, and more importantly, switched to newer, more profitable varieties, such as Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala and Granny Smith.
  • Foresight. Second, the industry remains dominated by family farmers who own the orchards, packing houses and control sales and marketing operations. Thus, a series of profitable years allowed those growers to respond and aggressively expand their orchards.
  • Productivity. The industry standard used to be 300 to 400 apple trees per acre, producing about 40 bins per acre. However, according to the Washington Apple Commission, new techniques now allow growers to plant as many as 1,500 trees per acre, with a production capacity of more than 100 bins of apples per acre.

You don’t need me to note that represents a 250 percent increase in productivity. In the meat industry, achieve one-hundredth of that, and you’re a genius.

Apple are a different animal altogether from cattle or hogs, of course, but the track record of apple growers speaks volumes as to the value of diversity, marketing and investment in productivity. Without that combination, it’s doubtful that the state’ apple industry would be as robust as it is today. Given the foreign competition, the difficulties inherent in marketing fresh produce and the waning popularity of such former industry standards as Red Delicious, business as usual would have likely spelled trouble for state’ growers.

Eating apples is supposed to make a person healthy, wealthy and wise.

Those adjectives are not only applicable to Washington growers, they’re watchwords all producers ought to embrace.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.