They called them “Agricultural Weather Damage Farm Tours.”
Michigan Farm Bureau set them up. On Monday, May 21, state representatives and senators toured fruit orchards owned by Josh Morse and Don Rasch on Fruit Ridge north of Grand Rapids.
On Tuesday, May 22, Michigan Congressmen Dave Camp and Dan Benishek visited orchards in the Traverse City area.
On Wednesday, May 23, Congressman Fred Upton toured orchards in southwest Michigan owned by Jon Hinkelman, Randy Willmeng, and Rodney Winkel.
Good Fruit Grower took the tour that same afternoon at the orchards of Ed and Mike Wittenbach near Belding, where freshman Congressman Justin Amash viewed the damage.
Unlike orchards damaged by hail or pests, these orchards looked really healthy—taking a vacation from fruit production. The Wittenbachs feel fortunate to have a quarter of an apple crop. Overall, Michigan is thought to be the fruit state worst hit by April’s freezes. The apple crop is estimated at 2 to 2.5 million bushels, just 10 percent of the normal 20 to 25 million.
The state’s tart cherry crop, normally nearly 200 million pounds, is estimated at 10 million this year.
The Wittenbachs have 225 acres of apples—but their 450 acres of corn and soybeans will be the saviors this year. Their apple production normally runs 9-10,000 bins, Mike said, but he sees maybe 2-2,500 this year. Other Michigan growers fared much worse. “We are among the most blessed,” Mike said.
Mike, who graduated from Michigan State University 20 years ago and joined his parents, became the fourth generation on the farm. The orchards are modern, and even more modern ones are being planted.
Mike took us to his best site, the highest elevation on the farm, and there were no apples there. “We didn’t put in any frost protection on this site because we never needed any,” he said. They have wind machines to protect more vulnerable sites. “Each wind machine is positioned to protect about 12 acres,” he said. “This year we have some apples in about five acres around each machine.” He said they spent $30,000 running the machines 18 nights—there were so many frost events—and things were looking good until the final big freeze on April 29.
Summed it up
About 30 attended the tour. Michigan State University Extension fruit educators Amy Irish-Brown and Phil Schwallier showed a chart that summed it all up. A mild winter followed by temperatures in the 80s in March pushed apples on Fruit Ridge to the green tip stage on March 17, a full four weeks ahead of normal. Full bloom came on April 17, nearly a month ahead of the May 14 norm. As this was occurring, there were 21 frost/freeze events between March 26 and April 29. “We might have survived eight or nine,” Irish-Brown said. “That’s pretty normal. This was a 100-year event, maybe a 500-year event.”
Wittenbach said their apples survived all the freezes but the last one.
In talking to Amash, a Tea Party Republican, the growers knew not to ask for money. Amash talked about the mounting national debt, and the farmers knew they needed to ask for things that wouldn’t add to it.
He was on their side about E-verify, saying immigration issues are government issues, not employer issues.
He asked growers whether the short crop might permanently interfere with the flow of workers to Michigan. That produced a lot of discussion, because most growers get the same workers back year after year.
They talked about crop insurance, which will help apple growers this year but it not available to tart cherry growers and only available to sweet cherry growers in two Michigan counties this year, as a pilot program. Amash seemed interested in making crop insurance more available and less complicated.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was being petitioned by growers in Michigan and New York for disaster declarations, which would make low-interest loans more available, but since the cost of borrowed money is already very low, the growers talked more about making money available than about low interest.
Amash spoke about Congress getting back in more direct control of Washington agencies, where he believes over-regulation that stifles business enterprise occurs. Growers mentioned how the Department of Labor pulled back pending regulations covering youth labor on farms in the wake of protest.
Julia Baehre Rothwell, a past-chair of the U.S. Apple Association, asked him to help make sure the Farm Bill, with its many specialty crop provisions, gets passed this fall and not be made a political football.
Mike Rothwell, at Belding Fruit Storage and BelleHarvest Sales, said he expects a massive ripple effect from the short fruit crop. “We expect to run about 20 percent of what we would normally pack and sell,” he said. “We’ll be done by November 1.” He expects it will take the Michigan apple industry three to five years to recover.
The freezes came as Michigan was gearing up to pack and sell a lot more fresh apples. There is better sorting equipment and more packing capacity now, and more investment was being made. “A lot of money was being committed and spent,” he said.
The loss of crop was expected to reduce apple grower income from about $200 million farm gate value to about $20 million. The Wittenbachs alone stand to lose nearly $800,000 in gross receipts, Mike said.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.
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