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Michigan apple growers show resiliency and determination despite devastating crop losses

The Michigan apple industry suffered huge crop losses stemming from historic weather events in late winter and spring. An early heat wave followed by a frost-filled spring resulted in the largest apple crop loss since the 1940s.

"We are predicting a crop of about 3 million bushels, compared to our normal 20 [million] to 23 million," Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, told The Produce News. "It wasn't just apples that were devastated. Cherry and other stone fruit crops also suffered huge losses."

Ms. Smith, who was named as executive director of the committee in July, said that Michigan growers went to extreme measures to try to protect their crops when the freeze blast dipped into the state from the north. They utilized frost fans, orchard heaters and even helicopters, which move warm air from aloft to the ground surface. The theory behind all of these measures is to keep the air temperature just a few degrees warmer during a hard frost.

"But when temperatures drop into the lower teens, such as what happened this spring, none of these efforts help," said Ms. Smith. "These are very costly attempts, which demonstrate growers' determination to try to save their crops."

In May, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder officially requested disaster assistance for the state's fruit growers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On June 26, he signed a bill supporting a low-interest loan program for farmers whose crops have been lost.

"We are very fortunate to have a governor who is highly supportive of agriculture," said Ms. Smith. "Apples are Michigan's largest and most valuable fruit crop, with an estimated economic impact of $700 million to $900 million annually. Growers pride themselves on a rich heritage of producing an array of fine apple varieties."

Growers who suffered losses are eligible for loans with 1 percent interest. In mid-August, the committee was waiting on appropriations. Growers also have some crop insurance, but it does not cover total losses.

"All of the assistance combined will help growers get through the year until the next crop comes through," said Ms. Smith. "This is a resilient group of growers, and they will work hard to bring a 2013 crop in and market it aggressively."

The approximate 850 apple growers in Michigan produce Honeycrisp, Gala, Jonagold and Fuji apples, along with the traditional Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. The export market, Ms. Smith noted, is major for Michigan apple growers.

Michigan growers are also savvy, she said, and they know that they'll have to market aggressively to win back export customers who will be forced to turn to other sources in the coming year.

"But retail customers are also aware of circumstances such as what we suffered this year," said Ms. Smith. "They understand the issues that the fresh produce industry must deal with, especially those related to weather, and they tend to maintain strong loyalties to their suppliers."

In the meantime, Michigan apple professionals aren't skipping a beat when it comes to planning for a bigger future. In the fall of 2013, 47 acres of farmland in Alpine Township will be home to a new state-of-the-art apple packing and distribution center, with an estimated cost of between $12 million and $15 million.

"The agriculture sector is playing a major role in Michigan's economic recovery," Ms. Smith added. "It is gratifying to see investments apple growers and shippers have made to improve their businesses not only benefit our industry and solidify apples as a top Michigan fruit crop, but also be recognized for the positive impact on the state's economy."