Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Poor pickings plague apple growers this year

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – Phyllis Kilcherman, co-owner of Christmas Cove Farm in Northport, normally expects her 20 snow apple trees to produce about 60 bushels of fruit.

This year, they yielded only two.

“We had a visit by Jack Frost in early May,” Kilcherman said. “But we’re lucky we got any apples. We’re blessed to have what we have.”

An unusually warm week in spring followed by a late freeze caused this year’s apple crop to be smaller than usual, according to Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

The committee works to improve the profitability of the state’s apple industry through market development, research and education.

Donohue said the crop is about 20 to 25 percent smaller than usual, but about 47 percent smaller than last year’s crop, the largest in Michigan’s history. The stress that such a big crop put on trees added to this year’s problems, she said.

“Someone I was talking to had been growing for years. He was about 50 year old and told me this was the earliest he could ever remember being done picking,” Donohue said.

In addition to producing fewer apples, growing conditions caused those apples to mature more quickly, which means orchards must pick them sooner than usual, she said.

Carol Ross, co-owner of Stony Creek Orchard and Cider Mill in Romeo, said that hurts sales at orchards that allow visitors to pick apples themselves.

“Usually you can offer U-pick until the end of October,” Ross said. “On the average, everything’s running about two weeks early. If you don’t harvest, then the apples are just going to fall on the ground. Everything’s ripe now, so that means you need to get them off or you’re going to lose them all.”

Ross said her employees will pick the remaining apples, which will then be sold commercially. She added that although the farm will still make money, it will be less than usual.

“You make more with U-pick because you get families out and they’ll buy donuts, they’ll buy cider,” Ross said. “There’s going to be a profit loss.”

Shirley Hartstock, manager of Klackle Orchards in Greenville, said the west side of the state is experiencing the same situation.

And although there are fewer apples, prices won’t go up because Michigan doesn’t control the apple market, she said.

“Across the country there is a good crop, so prices are not going to jump,” Hartstock said.

The Apple Committee’s Donohue said farms often expand into other crops or services to

provide financial security when apple crops don’t do as well as expected.

For example, Klackle Orchards has a pavilion for sporting and other events, such as weddings. Stony Creek sells products such as jams, butters and salad dressings. Christmas Cove  also grows cherries, peaches and plums, and specializes in what Kilcherman called “apples with a history”.

“Our oldest apple dates back to the time of Christ,” Kilcherman said. “It was one that the Romans and Napoleon would have been eating during that time.”

Donohue said the Apple Committee is working to diversify the state’s markets as well.

“We export, in a typical year, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of our total crop,” she said. “Where Michigan can be very competitive is straight south, so we are exporting primarily to all of Latin America, Mexico, islands in the Caribbean.”

Buyers come to Michigan from around the world to taste apples and observe orchards and processing facilities, Donohue said.

“The group that I gave a tour to last weekend was from India, Russia, Malaysia and Thailand,” Donohue said.

Although Washington state is the biggest American exporter to countries across the Pacific Ocean, an innovative trade route through Egypt can put Michigan on a level playing field.

“Believe it or not, when they cut through the Suez Canal, we can be competitive there,” she said.

Ken Nye, a commodity specialist who works with fruits and vegetables at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said this year’s small crop has damaged trade relationships formed during last year’s record growing season.

“Unfortunately, there’s usually someone else available to take those export markets if we don’t have the volume,” Nye said. “You’d like to have a little more consistent production so you can develop a market over time. The problem is, here in 2010, we’ve kind of given away some of those markets and it will take some long-term activity to get those back.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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