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Michigan apples, cherries bear brunt of killer frost

Michigan’s tree fruit growers sustained serious losses this production season following a rollercoaster cycle of warm weather and subsequent freezes. March temperatures soared upward as tree buds began to open early. The warmth was followed by killing freezes in April that stopped production dead in its tracks for apples, cherries, peaches and grapes. Blueberries, which move into production later in the season, were relatively unharmed.

Jay Johnson, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Michigan Field Office, said the extent of losses is yet to be quantified. “There won’t be any direct estimate of the production lost as a result of this season’s abnormal weather,” he told The Produce News. “But the production estimates will be able to be compared to the historical average to get some idea of the impact.”

Mr. Johnson said NASS would issue in-season fruit estimate reports for select Michigan fruit as follows: cherries, June 28; apples, peaches and grapes, Aug. 10.

It is too early to FrostDamageOverviewWarm temperatures in March resulted in an early bloom for Michigan apple producers. A wave of freezing temperatures moved through the state in April, however, killing the blossoms. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)determine an actual damage assessment, as the Michigan apple harvest typically ramps up in August. Diane Smith, interim executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said the freeze that occurred the last weekend of April was the worst in the series. “Temperatures were in the low to mid-20s,” she told The Produce News on June 19. Damage was not region — or variety — specific. “It affected the whole state,” Ms. Smith commented. “Some regions were hit harder than others.”

Heroic measures were undertaken by apple producers to protect their trees and save their crops. Smudge pots and wind machines were the first line of defense. “Some growers used helicopters to circulate warmer air into the orchards,” Ms. Smith stated. “The growers were fighting so diligently.”

“There are no disaster funds per se out there,” she continued. Federal disaster relief under the current farm bill expired last year. On the state level, she said a disaster relief measure, which would make low-interest loans available to affected growers, is on the desk of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, awaiting his signature.

According to Ms. Smith, Michigan’s apple industry infuses the state’s economy with $700 million to $900 million annually. “We’re going to have apples,” she stated of prospects for the current season. “It’s just a question of how many.”

Apple growers are still marketing product from the 2011 crop year. She expected these supplies to clean out in July.

Nita Send, owner of Send Receiving in Sutton’s Bay, MI, said losses to the state’s sweet cherry crop were not as severe as those sustained by tart cherry growers. “We are expecting 10 to 15 percent of our normal [sweet cherry] crop,” she told The Produce News on June 18. The business is a receiving station for area producers of both sweet and tart cherries. According to Ms. Send, crop movement will begin in July. Send Receiving handles both light and dark cherry varieties, and Ms. Send said damage varied by variety.

Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer for the Cherry Marketing Institute, said 2012 has been a difficult marketing year for Michigan tart cherry industry. “We were hurt across the state. The total crop will be one-third of normal,” he said. “The last time this happened was in 2002.”

He anticipated an overall volume of 70 million pounds, compared to a more typical volume of approximately 240 million pounds. “Normally, 70 percent of the nation’s tart cherries come out of Michigan,” he continued. “We will bring as much to the market as can be done. CMI is absolutely committed to marketing cherries.”

Perry Hedin, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, also looked at the impact to the tart cherry industry. “It’s pretty devastating,” he said. “It was almost uniform devastation in the Great Lakes region.” While it appears that 8.5 million pounds of tart cherries are on the trees, he said it is unknown if producers will fire up equipment to harvest the crop. Looking at growing regions, he said tart and sweet cherries have some overlap. “What goes for the tarts pretty much goes for the sweets,” he noted.

Susan Wilcox Owen, media and marketing manager for the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, MI, said the festival will be held July 7-14. “We are advocates and cheerleaders for the industry,” she said. “We are a national event, and we want to emphasize that.” She went on to say it is not unusual for the festival to bring in fresh cherries from other parts of the country for sampling.

“The warm temperatures in March set up a perfect storm for the tree fruit industry in Michigan,” Larry Ensfield, vice president of operations for MBG Marketing, said June 18. The cooperative represents 350 blueberry producers in the states of Michigan, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Indiana, Oregon and Washington, as well as British Columbia. Of the total members, 140 are located in the Great Lakes region.

He said blueberry bushes were not in bloom when the killing frosts swept through Michigan. Growers implemented frost protection measures to protect their bushes. “[However], there was some damage,” he added. “We’re hearing in the Great Lakes region berries may be a little small. But overall, we will have good quality.”

This season, Michigan growers expect to market between 85 million to 90 million pounds of blueberries. “[Volume] is actually up over last year,” Mr. Ensfield said . The blueberry harvest began in mid-June, and Mr. Ensfield expects some overlap between blueberry varieties during a compressed marketing window.