Nipped in the bud

May 29, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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No doubt about it — the 2012 Michigan fruit crop was seriously damaged by frost this spring. But to what extent is not precisely known yet. Nor is it clear just how much of a financial impact it will have on the food industry in Michigan.

More will be known on June 6 when the Fruit Crop Guesstimate takes place at the annual meeting of the Michigan Frozen Food Packers Association at the Amway Grand in Grand Rapids.

The association only has 15 members, most in southwest Michigan, but the Guesstimate, in its 57th year, attracted more than 150 people in the food processing industry last year, according to Terry Morrison, MFFPA executive director.

“Different processors come from all over Michigan and other states,” he said.

Morrison described the frost damage this spring as “a real disaster,” and said he has heard talk the ripple effect through the Michigan economy, starting with the farmers and including the processing industry and their suppliers, could possibly equate to $1 billion in losses.

That number also was used by Amy Irish-Brown, a Michigan State University Extension educator at the Kent County office in Grand Rapids, who wrote a report last week titled “2012 Michigan Freeze Disaster of Perennial Fruit Crops and Effects on Kent County.”

The extremely unusual warm weather in mid-March ended the winter dormancy of fruit trees too early, with budding started well before the devastating frosts on April 27 and April 29.

Kent County, with its famous Fruit Ridge area, is the largest apple-producing county in Michigan. Using data from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Irish-Brown wrote the thus-far unconfirmed estimates put the statewide apple loss at 90 percent of the crop, which would represent a dollar loss of more than $107 million to the growers, based on apple prices from 2006 to 2010.

Tart cherry losses also are estimated at 90 percent, which would be a dollar loss of about $38.5 million to the growers. Kent County is not a major tart cherry producer, but other counties in northwestern Michigan make the state the largest tart cherry producer in the United States.

Blueberries are the most valuable of the fruit and berry crops in Michigan, with an annual value of about $135 million to the growers, compared to apples in second place at $119 million, according to the Irish-Brown report. Estimates of frost damage to the blueberry crop have been put at about 15 percent, a dollar value of $20 million.

Michigan’s apple crop is traditionally the third largest in the U.S., behind Washington and New York. While the northwestern fruit states of Washington, Oregon and Utah were untouched, the frost damage that hit Michigan also decimated the fruit crops from eastern Ontario through upstate New York.

Terry Johnson, manager of the Gerber processing plant in Fremont, said it is not clear yet if the Michigan frost damage will have an impact on Gerber’s production of baby foods, which includes apples and other fruits. Gerber produces more than 70 percent of the baby food sold in the U.S.

Gerber also has a plant in Arkansas, and the company obtains fruits and vegetables for its two plants from a number of states.

When asked if the Michigan fruit loss would increase the price of baby food, he replied, “not significantly.”

“We are looking for alternative sources,” said Johnson. “Our purchasing group has several resources. I have complete confidence they’ll find the sources we need.”

“When next year’s crop is back, we will still look to Michigan for sourcing those things,” said Johnson.

Most of the concern in Michigan agriculture this year is apparently focused on cherries and apples, because of their relative value, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. As noted by the MFFPA’s Morrison, fresh apples travel well in refrigerated containers, whereas fresh cherries do not.

“(Apples) can travel from Washington, and processors in past years have brought them in from Washington,” said Morrison.

Tart cherries destined for processing (either frozen or canned) are immersed in portable tanks of very cold water, standing by in the orchard, as soon as they are harvested. The tanks are then loaded on trucks and quickly hauled to the processor.

Although Washington and Utah together produce as much as 60 million pounds of tart cherries, Morrison said, “It would be too far to transport them (to Michigan). Cherries are soft; they would not ride that well.”

Irish-Brown said the northwestern states export apples to Asia “because they are such a huge producer of apples. They can’t sell them all domestically. You go in your local grocery store and you do see Washington apples here in Michigan. And you’re going to see more of them, probably, this fall — unfortunately.”

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