Lance Shebelut was seeing red.

But that’s a good thing when you’re looking at a crop of Gala apples that has color shoppers want, thanks to a cooler summer in the San Joaquin Valley.

For Shebelut, who grows apples in Madera County, and many other California apple growers, it was among the good news for the 2010 crop that will help make up for what many are calling a terrible year for the state’s apples in 2009.

Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission in Fresno, puts it this way: “Last year was a disaster, probably the worst apple year in the state’s history.”

A number of factors combined to account for that grim year in which just over 2.2 million cartons were shipped (Ott is expecting shipments to total 3 million 40-pound cartons this year.) Ott listed some of the factors: exotic pests that caused export partners to bristle, holdover of fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, a warm spring and hot summer, fruit that did not size well, a shrinking economy and low prices.

The Gala is the first apple to come off trees in California and its season is limited. The 2008 California Gala crop sold out in three weeks; the 2009 crop did not last much longer and that’s just fine with Ott.

“We want to maintain that niche,” he said, “Pick it, pack it, ship it fresh.”                 

Atomic Torosian, managing partner with Crown Jewels Marketing in Fresno, said, “The California deal is a small window compared to the Northwest.”

He expects his company, which is the marketing arm of Courtland-based Green & Hemly Inc., will handle about 60,000 cartons of Galas this year, about 450,000 cartons of all California varieties.

He said the Galas peaked at 100s and 113, “about right for a Gala apple” and that they colored “extremely well.”

Shebelut said this was “the coolest summer I can remember in 22 years.” It meant he did not have to run sprinklers in his orchard to cool the Galas in order to bring out the red. It also meant better sizes and a harvest that was later by about two weeks.

Getting the fruit to redden is a key.

“Shoppers buy with their eyes,” Shebelut said.

Among the ways of tricking Mother Nature into producing an apple with more red is summer pruning to let light in, a tricky prospect because removal of too much foliage can cause sunburn.

Shebelut also puts reflective Mylar plastic on the orchard floor in places to bounce light into the tree and enhance coloring. But it also intensifies heat. He said his work crews start at dawn and are often finished by noon or 1 p.m., an optimum time to get the best fruit while avoiding heat stress.