On a “no fruit” tour of orchards in Michigan, Michigan State University fruit educators Phil Schwallier and Amy Irish-Brown showed this chart that summed up the spring of 2012 weather in the Fruit Ridge area of west central Michigan. There were 21 frost events in April—double the normal amount—hitting trees that were a month ahead of normal in development. With them on right is Congressman Justin Amash.

On a “no fruit” tour of orchards in Michigan, Michigan State University fruit educators Phil Schwallier and Amy Irish-Brown showed this chart that summed up the spring of 2012 weather in the Fruit Ridge area of west central Michigan. There were 21 frost events in April—double the normal amount—hitting trees that were a month ahead of normal in development. With them on right is Congressman Justin Amash.

Richard Lehnert

Michigan, the state that annually conducts a very early estimate of the total size of the nation’s fruit crop, almost called the event off this year. The reason: Not much Michigan fruit to talk about.

In the end, the Michigan Frozen Food Packers Association decided “it was necessary” and went ahead with its 57th annual Fruit Crop Guesstimate. It was held June 6 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The numbers confirmed the pessimism. Michigan has not had such a blowout in fruit production since the year 1945.

The estimated size of the tart cherry crop is 12 million pounds—in the state that normally produces three-fourths of the national crop. “For the first time in history, Utah will be the largest producer of tart cherries this year,” said Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute. Michigan’s production capacity is about 275 million pounds, Korson said, and the state’s average production has been 186 million pounds a year over the last three years.

The state’s apple crop was estimated at 2,975,000 bushels, only about a tenth of last year’s production.

Michigan’s sweet cherry crop was pegged at 775,000 pounds, in a state where average production for the last five years has been 46 million pounds.

There was no estimate of the fresh peach crop, but it, too, was said to be only a minor percentage of the usual size.

The bright spot is blueberries, where the state’s production was estimated at 81 million pounds, 9 million more than last year but down from the 97-million-pound five-year average. Nationally, blueberries are still on a production tear.

Here are the numbers in more detail.

Apples

Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, presented the outlook for the national crop.

Washington is on track to produce its largest crop ever, about 145 million bushels. Unlike Michigan and other eastern producing states, it had no weather issues—and now turns to questions of how to harvest and store the large crop. Average production in Washington has been 128.5 million bushels over the last five years.

New York, which had a 30-million-bushel crop last year, was guesstimated at 15.4 million—but Smith said it’s probably smaller than that—maybe 12 million bushels. New York industry leaders have been very quiet about crop size, she said.

Michigan, the third-largest producer after Washington and New York, has been an erratic producer in recent years. Production was somewhat stable at 18 to 20 million bushels a year in 2005, 2006, and 2007, but then fell to 14 million in 2008, bounced up to 27.3 million in 2009, fell to 14 million again in 2010, recovered to 26 million last year—and this year fell off the chart.

Smith said the 3 million estimate for Michigan apple production is probably too low, but there is much doubt about how many will be harvested. Apples are extremely sparse in eastern and southwestern Michigan. Eastern Michigan has less than 10,000 bushels to serve its farm market industry, and southwest Michigan only 84,000 bushels—less than 3 percent of a normal crop.

The west central part of the state, which includes the Fruit Ridge area and normally produces half the state’s crop, has fewer than 2.5 million bushels, or less than a quarter of a crop. Northwest Michigan has a tenth of that, 250,000 bushels.

Pennsylvania has a crop of 10.5 million bushels, Smith said. There was some isolated freeze damage, but the crop is just under average size of 11.2 million bushels.

California production will be 10 percent above average, at 7.8 million bushels. Production there had been falling, but new plantings are coming along.

Virginia had one significant freeze, but will have a crop of 4.2 million bushels, down from an average 5.2 million.

Weather issues have also damaged the North Carolina apple crop, but no estimate was given on production there.

The total U.S. apple crop, while a record high in Washington, is still 13 million bushels below last year’s production because of the freezes that struck Michigan and New York.

Tart cherries

The national tart cherry crop this year was estimated at 75 million pounds, compared with production last year of about 260 million. Most of it will come from the three western states of Utah, Washington, and Oregon, Korson said.  Utah will have an about-average crop, 32 million pounds, and Washington a big crop, 25 million pounds, well above its average production. Oregon, at 2.5 million, is also slightly above average.

But New York, normally producing about 10 million pounds, comes in at 0.5 million. Pennsylvania, at 2 million, is about its usual average, and Wisconsin, normally about 10 million pounds, is, like New York, a bust at 0.5 million.

There is some question about whether growers will get out their trunk shakers to gather what’s out there, but processors are looking to buy all they can find—and one suggested the price could be a dollar a pound.

Blueberries

John Shelford, of Shelford Associates, Naples, Florida, a long-time analyst of the berry industry, spoke about the surging production of blueberries.

Michigan, once the largest producer but now number three, will produce 81 million pounds this year, more than last year but less than its five-year average.

But production has been surging in other areas, and last year, production in the Western Hemisphere topped a billion pounds for the first time. Shelford predicts it will rise to 1.6 billion pounds in 2016.

In 1990, total production was about 100 million pounds, and Michigan was by far the leading producer. Demand has been driven by the image of a healthy fruit that the industry has cultivated, he said.

Growth first occurred in the Southeast, where North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida will produce 148 million pounds this year. Production in the Northeast is flat at around 60 million pounds.

The most recent growth has been in the West, where production this year will reach 321 million pounds.

Again this year, the North American crop will grow by 10 to 12 percent, Shelford said.

Chile, Mexico, and Argentina have chimed in with 262 million pounds of production, driving Western Hemisphere production to an estimated 1.098 billion pounds this year, Shelford said. This number also includes lowbush, or “wild,” blueberry production, of about 80 million pounds from Maine.

The weather

The story behind the sorry fruit production in Michigan, New York, Ontario, Canada, and states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, is weather that occurred in a long west-to-east band across the Great Lakes area.

A mild winter was followed by two weeks of summer-like weather in mid-March, which brought fruit trees out of dormancy and into bloom, as much as a month ahead of normal. Then, a colder than normal April, punctuated by up to 21 freezing nights, whittled away at the crop. Hard freezes on April 27 and April 29 did the final damage.