Food Service & Agriculture

Money trees: apples by the bushels

Happily, this year’s predicted crop is the opposite of last year’s.

August 30, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Money Trees
Don Armock of Riveridge Produce near Sparta believes this year's apple crop in Michigan will be exceptional in terms of eating quality as well as quantity. Photo by Jim Gebben

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Michigan’s apple growers will harvest approximately 30 million bushels of apples this year, according to the official crop estimate announced in late August at the USApple Outlook meeting in Chicago, where the Michigan Apple Committee was in attendance.

Compare that 30 million to one year ago when only about 3 million bushels were harvested after an unusual warm spell in early spring made the trees bloom too early — followed by a very severe, killing frost that all but wiped out Michigan’s 2012 fruit crops.

“Our growers, packers and shippers are already moving Michigan apples into the marketplace and are thrilled with the estimates for this year’s crop,” said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee. “There’s a lot of buzz around the estimate here in Chicago and in our state. Growers are looking forward to a successful harvest season.”

According to the MAC, apples are one of the most widely cultivated fruits in the world, with about 130 billion pounds produced worldwide in 2004 in 91 countries on about 13 million acres. Thirty-five states in the U.S. produce apples with an estimated value of $1.76 billion.

In Michigan, about 37,000 acres are in apple production, with the majority of farms under 200 acres. About 950 apple growers are in regions near Lake Michigan and along the western part of the state. MAC said apples are one of the state’s largest and most valuable fruit crops, with an estimated annual impact of $700 million to $900 million on the state’s economy.

Michigan usually produces an average of 18 million bushels of apples each year. About 60 percent of Michigan's apples are processed into products such as pie filling, applesauce, jellies, butter, juice, cider and vinegar. Michigan also is the leading producer of slices for commercially-prepared apple pie.

The weather disaster in 2012 impacted fruit growers in northern states from Wisconsin east to New York. In Michigan, with an estimated 90 percent of the crop lost and much of the remnant unfit for the fresh market, growers, shippers and packers had lots of time on their hands so they spent it making investments and improvements in their farms and packing facilities.

“Our apple growers always maintained a positive attitude throughout the difficult crop year. They made positive investments in the industry and looked ahead to how they could make the industry even better going forward,” said Smith.

According to MAC, the predicted crop size would be one of the largest apple crops Michigan has seen. In 2011, Michigan produced about 26 million bushels of apples. Michigan is the third-largest producer of apples in the United States, behind Washington and New York.

“Many factors have contributed to this large crop,” said Smith. “Great weather this past spring and summer — including cool nights, plenty of rain, as well as a good amount of sunshine — certainly helped. In addition, a long, dormant period allowed the trees to store energy to help create a large crop. Finally, a lot of hard work by our growers ultimately gives us a great quality crop of good-sized, flavorful Michigan apples.”

Located a few miles northwest of Grand Rapids is a well-known agricultural area known as the Fruit Ridge. This first-class growing region sits on elevations of up to 800 feet, which helps protect fruit blossoms and buds from late frosts because the colder and heavier air settles in the lower elevations. The Fruit Ridge also benefits from abundant rainfall that comes in off Lake Michigan.

Don Armock is very familiar with the Fruit Ridge. He is one of three partners who own Riveridge Produce near Sparta. Riveridge has its own apple orchards but also serves as a sales agent for other apple growers in the region. Riveridge is one of the larger apple growers in Michigan, with its own cold storage and packing facility.

Almost all of Michigan’s apple orchards are on the western side of the Lower Peninsula, roughly from Traverse City south to the state line; about 70 percent of the orchards are actually concentrated on the Fruit Ridge, according to Armock.

Last year, Riveridge harvested only about 7 or 8 percent of its normal apple crop. “And a lot of that was damaged. It wasn’t something we could pack and sell to the consumer as fresh apples, so they went for juice and some processing, caramel apples and that sort of thing,” said Armock

This year there were a couple of relatively minor frost events in the spring, but there are things farmers can do, such as moving the air over the orchards on frosty nights with the use of industrial-size fans. “We were able to protect against it,” said Armock.

Now it depends on “catching some timely rains” to help add some size to the fruit, he noted.

Because the crop came in so heavy this year, apple growers thinned it early in the season to allow the remaining fruit to grow larger. Thinning is usually done with chemical sprays but this year, according to Armock, growers also did some hand-thinning later in the season, targeting small apples and those with blemishes or defects.

“So our crop left on the tree is a very, very clean crop,” said Armock. “That means when we pack this crop, we’re going to make a bigger percentage of fresh than probably we’ve ever seen.”

There is another twist to this season. The very hot and dry August was the perfect combination of weather to “really make brix,” he said. Brix is a scientific measure of the sugar solution content in fruit, which is extremely important to grape growers, in particular.

Sugar content is “not quite as critical for us apple growers, but when we get it, it makes a big difference in the eating quality,” said Armock.

“I think we’re going to have a crop that is going to be one of those vintage crops in terms of eating quality,” he added.

Starting about 10 or 20 years ago, apple growers, especially the sophisticated growers in Michigan, began looking at other varieties from around the world that consumers preferred and started concentrating on raising them, according to Armock, replacing old varieties.

“We’ve planted substantial acreage of Gala, Fuji, Jonagold and Honeycrisps. Those are the real drivers of our business today,” he said.

According to MAC, Fuji is new to Michigan’s apple lineup and is Japan’s favorite apple, with a sweet/tart flavor and low-acid content, and it stays crisp for weeks.

Jonagold is highly ranked by apple connoisseurs, according to MAC, and is popular in Europe — but MAC says it’s even better when grown in Michigan’s cooler climate.

All of this is good news for the consumer, too. Because of the shortage last year, consumer prices last fall and winter “were very high” for fresh apples, said Armock.

“Our goal here is to sell apples for what we did two years ago, which were good prices for the farm and made for fair prices for the consumer. I think we’re going to accomplish that,” he said. Fresh apple cider prices were “off the charts” last season, he noted, but this year should bring lower prices that consumers have not seen for two or three years.

According to MAC, the USApple Outlook meeting’s estimate is the only official national crop estimate this year, as the federal sequester eliminated the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate.

The Michigan Apple Committee is a grower-funded nonprofit organization devoted to marketing, education and research activities to distinguish the Michigan apple and encourage its consumption in Michigan and around the world. For more information, visit MichiganApples.com.

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