Fruit Its the pits

June 8, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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There was some doubt raised prior to the event as to whether the 57th annual Fruit Crop Guesstimate, held last week in Grand Rapids by the Michigan Frozen Food Packers Association, would even be necessary, according to Andy Janson.

Janson, president of the association, was talking about the obvious fact that Michigan’s apple and cherry crops were decimated by frost this spring, with the damage compared by some old-timers to similar disasters going back as far as 1945.

The first item on the MFFPA agenda, however, wasn’t about the extensive crop loss. Instead it was about what is being done now by the state and federal governments to help Michigan fruit growers borrow enough capital to get through this year of drastically reduced revenue.

Several state lawmakers announced last week that they are seeking financial relief for Michigan’s fruit farmers, who were devastated by the winter’s unusual early thaw and subsequent frost damage.

According to a statement issued jointly by state senators Mike Green and Geoff Hansen, a recent Michigan State University study found that from 2006 to 2010, the average annual fruit sales were $361.9 million. Using these figures as a base, the estimated loss this year is 58 percent of the 2006-2010 average, or $209.8 million worth of apples, blueberries, grapes, peaches, sweet cherries, tart cherries and asparagus.

“The scale of the crop loss is staggering,” said Green, a Republican from Mayville. “This program is designed to bridge the gap for an industry that is the backbone of the Michigan economy.”

In 2002, the Michigan Legislature passed the Michigan Farm Disaster Relief Program, which provided assistance to Michigan farmers having financial hardship due to significant weather-related crop losses.

House Bill 5717, which would establish a similar program aimed at providing relief to affected farmers in the form of low-interest loans, was introduced last week.

“It’s critical that the state respond quickly to our fruit farmers, who have suffered great losses from this winter’s early thaw and freezes,” said Hansen, a Republican from Hart. His area includes much of the western Michigan fruit belt along the lakeshore.

Both the Michigan Senate and Gov. Rick Snyder have urged President Barack Obama and the U.S. Agriculture secretary to declare Southwest Michigan and all of Michigan’s fruit-growing regions disaster areas this year. Cherries, apples, peaches and grapes are apparently the hardest hit crops in the state, with the biggest money losers being apple and tart cherry growers.

One piece of good news was about Michigan blueberries: Of all Michigan fruit and berry crops, blueberries have the largest dollar value at the farm gate, and the 2012 crop not only survived the heavy frosts, it is predicted to be 81 million pounds, compared to 76 million last year.

Michigan produces more blueberries than any other state. The 2010 Michigan crop was worth $134 million at the farm gate, according to the USDA. Apples came in at second place in the state with a value of $116 million, and tart cherries were third at $27 million.

The most serious dollar loss is in apples. The west-central Michigan region, which includes Mason and Oceana counties and extends south and east through Kent County, accounts for 75 percent of all Michigan apple production, according to Pat Chase of Jack Brown Produce on Fruit Ridge Avenue in Sparta. Jack Brown Produce is a grower-owned business that packs, ships and exports Michigan apples to almost every state east of the Rockies and to many international markets. Chase said their estimate for the entire state is just less than 3 million bushels of apples — “10 percent of what our potential could be.”

Ironically, Washington, which is the country’s largest apple-producing state, has the potential for its largest crop in history, according to Diane Smith of the Michigan Apple Committee. She said Washington could be harvesting 145 million bushels this year. New York is also a major apple producer and, while it did suffer frost damage, it was to a lesser extent, with the harvest predicted to be as much as half of normal.

Michigan is the largest tart cherry producer in the U.S., and northwest Michigan has the heaviest concentration of those orchards. Eric MacLeod said the region is expected to harvest between 3 and 6 million pounds this year, compared to 92 million last year and 183 million in 2009. MacLeod is a representative of Cherry Growers Inc., a Traverse City-area cooperative comprised of approximately 100 cherry and apple growers.

The west-central region of Michigan is the second largest tart cherry area in the state; it produced 48 million pounds last year, but 2012 is expected to yield 4 million, according to a spokesman for a canning/freezing operation in Oceana County.

The last really bad year for fruit growers was 2002, also because of frost damage. At that time, zero-interest loans were made available to farmers needing capital to prepare for — hopefully — a better year.

Phil Korson of the Cherry Marketing Institute, who was the emcee at the 2012 Fruit Crop Guesstimate, said the financial assistance programs farmers are hoping for from the state and federal governments are not very popular in this era, “but the need is very real.”

“There is some negativity in Lansing around this issue,” said Korson, but he said it should not be compared to the TARP bailouts of big business and banks, because the farmers’ loss didn’t happen “because somebody did something wrong.”

“But the fruit industry has a lot of support (in Lansing),” said Korson. “On the federal side, I know it’s tough.”

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