Rotting Apples

It seems rather strange that the rotting apples in Jim Erikson’s orchard would prove such concrete symbols of the Asian financial crisis. However, the tons of unharvested apples are just that: reflections of the economic and personal consequences of changing international exchange rates and trade patterns. For several years, the Asian appetite for Washington apples seemed virtually insatiable. For Washington fruit farmers such as Erikson, the growing Asian market for apples presented a golden opportunity, but opportunity turned into calamity when Asian demands for imported foods sunk in light of the financial crisis. Jim Erikson’s story is typical of those growers who seized on the surging international popularity of Washington fruit. With debts to pay back, Erikson’s hopes rest almost entirely on the income earned from growing apples, cherries, and pears on a 70-acre farm in Orondo, located at the base of Pine Canyon in central Washington. Despite growing apples in his family’s orchards in Chelan County for over 37 years, circumstances beyond his control have forced Erikson to leave at least a quarter of his fruit to rot on the trees or on the ground. As Erikson states, "for the first time in my orchard’s history, I’m going to leave fruit unharvested because low prices mean that I wouldn’t recover the cost of picking the apples by selling them."

Because of the financial crisis in Asia, an apple from Washington that used to cost, on average, $.40 in Thailand now costs $1.10, and in all of Asia, American apple exports, many of which come from Washington, have dropped by 42 percent. Since few Thai consumers can still afford imported fruit, traders have cut their imports of American apples by over 64 percent. But however dramatic they may appear, these aggregate trade figures and formal statistics fail to capture fully the frustration faced by farmers like Erikson, whose anxiety is obvious: "It’s a very disconcerting time. The small growers have lost control of their destiny and I don’t know how to turn it around. I feel like that salmon in the tank with Keiko, the killer whale. Where am I going to go?" For now, the only place for Erikson to go is to the roadside, where he hopes to stave off the latest crisis by selling apples to passing motorists, and simply hope for Asia’s hunger for Washington apples to return.