reWorking Michigan: Fall Apple Tradition Hit Hard

Oct 15, 2012

Michigan apple farmers suffered their largest crop loss since the 1940's this year. Early spring warmth followed by hard frosts killed fruit tree buds. The harvest is not all in yet, but state officials predict a 90 percent reduction in apple yield. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with Michigan Apple Committee executive director Diane Smith about how farmers are coping.

DIANE SMITH: Michigan apples—we grow fresh and processed apples here in the state. So, I would say about 40 percent of our crop goes to fresh, and 60 percent goes to processed. Processed can be everything from juice to cider, to applesauce, pie filling, slices you find at McDonalds--you know, those kind of value added products that are out there.  

We have about 200 farm markets in the state and cider mills. So those are on a much smaller scale but yet, they’re affected just as greatly as any of the commercial growers are in the state. Our normal economic impact to the state is about $700 million to $900 million, depending on the crop size. This year we’re still kind of trying to gauge what is actually out there and what kind of value it’s going to be back to the industry and back to the state.

MELISSA BENMARK: Some of the orchards or cider mills have family events like corn mazes and that kind of thing. And actually, I noticed when I was looking up some numbers on this that the pumpkin crop in particular is pretty good this year. And I wondered if some places maybe are switching their sales to be focused on some other seasonal crop, for instance, pumpkins.

SMITH: You know, I definitely think that pumpkins did have a good year, so I think that is a shining star for the farm marketers in the state, because they’re struggling as well. But I think people still equate fall with apples, and cider, and doughnuts. So, they’re still getting out there onto the farm.

The on-farm experience I think encompasses so much. You know, it’s part going out and maybe picking apples, which, no one was doing “U-Pick” this year. But the farm markets are still open. So they can still get out there, they can still have the cup of cider and some doughnuts, still get some apples. They’re also having to find places to source them and have been going to the fresh shippers a lot to do that. But there aren’t a lot of crops in the fall that they can fall back on besides apples.

BENMARK: What are the orchards that have less of that experiential focus, what are they doing to try and make up for this year?

SMITH: Well, definitely more commercial growers are going to be struggling. There are some different opportunities this year. The governor did sign at the end of June a bill for low-interest loan programs. So, that was a great tool for the growers moving forward. They’ll be able to access a one percent loan program to be able to bridge the gap until next year.

I will say the majority of those growers do have some form of crop insurance. Now, crop insurance doesn’t make them whole. You know, it’s maybe at the 50% rate, but that will also maybe help bridge the gap a little bit. But a lot of these growers, what we need to really realize is, even though they began harvesting in mid-August, they’re looking at probably not potentially having any income again until next October, November time frame.

That’s a long time for families and employees that depend on them. You know, they employ a lot of people that come out and work in the orchards and the packing facilities and the processing plants. So, it’s going to be a difficult year.

BENMARK: Do you find that customers are deliberately seeking out Michigan apples this year?

SMITH: We are hearing quite a bit from consumers this year. A lot of supportive comments and some maybe not as supportive about the price. Because the price has gone up definitely because the supply is so low. But I do think people are really interested in supporting local, and they are seeking it out, and they are trying to go to their local farm market and still help out. We get a lot of emails, “Well, I can’t find this variety, where is it?” And, you know, well, that may have been hit. All varieties were hit; it wasn’t one variety that was hit more than others. But they are definitely seeking it out this year.

BENMARK: The frost that caused so much damage—does it permanently damage the trees?

SMITH: No. We’re banking on some well-rested trees for a great crop next year. We’ve done a lot of work with Michigan State University and working with them to get the word out about that. So, we are banking on a great crop next year and we are really hoping for no weather issues whatsoever as we get through that process.