Macomb CountyJuly 10, 2012
State’s fruit growers project 90 percent loss due to weather
By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer
WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — At a young age, sisters Abby Jacobson and Katrina Schumacher were told about the Michigan spring of 1945.
That year, they were told, the winter was abnormally warm. Trees blossomed early across the state. Then the weather changed drastically in the spring. Temperatures dropped to below freezing, covering Michigan farms in frost and killing tree buds that would have eventually turned into apples and peaches.
Their family farm, Westview Orchards, yielded hardly any of the fruit, cherries and other products it produces still today.
A nearby farmer, Schumacher recalled her father telling her, had his son bury the apples that did make it that year to prevent pests feeding on them from ruining the following year’s harvest.
That was before the sisters — who declined to provide their age, but did say they were children of the ‘50s — were alive, but they know the stories well.
So in early March, when Michigan temperatures were hovering near 80 degrees, the fruit-bearing trees bloomed, and while non-farmers were praising the weather, the sisters and other fruit growers across the country knew disaster was coming.
“Farmers were horrified,” said Mark Longstroth, the small fruit educator at the Van Buren County Michigan State University Extension office.
By the end of March, Jacobson and Schumacher’s 188 acres of land that has been in the family since 1813 were covered in frost.
And the frost kept returning. Jacobson said there were 15 freeze events in Southeast Michigan, with the “final blow” to the orchard’s fruit coming on her birthday, April 29. The tiny buds of fruit that had formed were destroyed by that last frost, Jacobson said.
“You could open an apple with a thumbnail, and it was black inside,” she said, sitting on a picnic bench near the entrance of the orchard.
“Winter really threw us a curveball,” Schumacher said later that day while driving a golf cart among rows of trees ominously bare of fruit.
A few of their products survived. They are expecting a full harvest of strawberries and 33 percent yield of Red Haven peaches. Altogether, Westview is projecting a 90 percent loss in yield this year, a statistic echoed across Michigan.
“We’re talking about people’s livelihood, people who depend on the fruit industry,” Longstroth said.
The frosty spring and so-far dry summer are expected to deal the Michigan’s fruit growing industry a $250 million loss, Longstroth said.
In a normal year, the industry pumps $360 million into the state’s economy, he said, and that is without counting economic multipliers like the jobs created at food processing plants that buy grapes from farmers.
He said Welch’s processing plant on the west side of the state, which produces grape juice, is open usually for eight weeks during the summer. This year, they plan to have it open for only one week, Longstroth said.
“People that normally have a full-time summer job won’t because the processing plants won’t be open,” he said.
The loss in yield will translate to high Michigan fruit prices, as the products will be more sparse than what buyers are used to.
“It’s going to be very hard for consumers to come by,” Longstroth said. “You won’t be able find Michigan fruit in grocery stores.”
Many farmers, particularly those overseeing small farms, did not see the value in buying expensive crop insurance when it only covers crop losses greater than 50 percent. “They thought the insurance wasn’t worth paying for it,” Longstroth said.
The extreme loss led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare disasters in 72 counties in Michigan earlier in July.
The declaration provides a short-term lifeline by offering low-interest loans to farmers with land in one of the counties or in adjacent counties.
“Essentially every farmer affected is eligible,” said Cullen Schwarz, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
“No farming family should be wiped out because of a few days of bad weather,” Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate agricultural committee, said in a statement. “While nothing can replace the crops that were lost, this emergency declaration will help provide much needed assistance for our Michigan fruit growers who suffered such a devastating spring this year.”
Schwarz said farmers in need of a loan, which will be based on the yield lost in 2012, need to contact their local Farm Service Agency office to fill the monetary gap in preparation for next year.
Longstroth said the farmers that sell at farmers markets in various communities will lose money immediately.
And because most Michigan fruits are not harvested until late July, farmers markets are struggling to predict the amount of fruit that will be available to sell.
“We really don’t know what to expect,” said Dale Jenuwine, a farmer who also coordinates the Mount Clemens Farmers Market.
For farmers that sell to processing plants, the loss will extend into next year because they are paid once the processed product is sold on the open market, Longstroth said.
Fruit growers tried all known tactics in fighting the spring’s frost.
At Westview Orchards, they burned brush piles to thaw the buds. Others, Longstroth said, used orchard wind machines to mix warm layers of air with the cold. But nothing worked.
“It only took a couple of days for the freeze to cause significant damage,” Longstroth said. “It may put some people out of business.”
Some farmers, he said, are cutting their losses for the year and not harvesting at all because the amount they project to yield would not make up for the money spent in preparation, particularly during this relatively dry, hot summer.
“They’re saying that it’s not worth it for me to spray all the trees and pay laborers to harvest,” Longstroth said.
Others are looking in central and southern Ohio to purchase fruit from other farmers to sell.
Jacobson said she hasn’t started looking out of the state for fruit yet in preparation for their busy fall season at Westview Orchards.
Schumacher is still getting used to seeing the orchard’s trees without fruit. Sometimes, she still does a double take when looking at them while driving the rolling land in a golf cart.
She said many people ask why she and her sister keep the farm. She talked about the everlasting, cyclic relationship among farmers, climate and nature as a bald eagle hovered overhead looking for rodents and a whitetail fawn scampered into the wood line.
“There’s always next year,” Schumacher said.
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