Michigan is the third largest apple producer in the U.S., but this year growers are picking only 10 to 15 percent of their normal crop. Michigan State University estimates the wholesale value of the missing apples to be $110 million, a hit that is rippling through the regional apple economy.
“This spring, 2012, is probably going to be one for the record books,” says Amy Irish-Brown of the Michigan State University Extension, who works with fruit growers in the west Michigan region known as the Ridge. The 8-by-20-mile stretch of low-slung ridges, normally ideal for fruit cultivation, is where 65 percent of the state’s apples are grown.
Irish-Brown says last fall’s mild weather, followed by a mild winter with lots of rain and little snow, was the start of the problem. Then, in March, temperatures rose into the 80s. “That mild winter, no frost in the ground … as soon as that warm weather came and lasted for a whole week, the trees just started growing,” Irish-Brown says. But on April 27, temperatures plummeted below freezing. Irish-Brown says that in some of the lowest areas on the Ridge, it went down to 22 degrees.
The shriveled harvest means packing houses will shut down for much of the year to come. Usually, most of the apples are kept in storage and shipped out monthly for the rest of the year, but that won’t happen this time. Without the income from apples sold from storage, growers won’t have any more money coming in until the 2013 harvest.
Growers along the Ridge are hopeful that next year’s harvest will be better because the trees are resting. “Apple trees are pretty hardy, and we’re not hearing anything of permanent damage due to the weather this spring,” said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee. “We’re going to have well-rested trees, and generally when you have a well-rested tree, it really performs the next year. Barring any weather conditions, we could definitely come into next year with a record setting crop.” Meanwhile, growers have been working to maintain their apple trees with their usual fertilizing, pruning, and pest and disease management practices throughout the summer.