Aug 6, 2012
Growers make the best of a bad year

Hilda Biersdorfer uses an analogy to describe what the growing season of 2012 has been like for herself and her family – fifth-generation fruit growers with 121 acres in Guilford, Ind.

First came devastating spring frost while buds were in full bloom due to weeks of unseasonable summer-like weather, followed by a severe hail storm that gave way to drought that was still causing problems well into July. Combined, it meant a severe reduction (apples and peaches) to near or complete decimation (cherries and plums) in Biersdorfer’s crops this year.

“Let’s compare it to a gambler who has lost everything,” she said. “And actually, this is our second year we are having these kinds of problems.

“Last year in 2011, early, we had the rains. This year, we now have the drought. It’s just hard. It’s been hard on the trees, everything – people.”

Making good from bad

In fact, it’s the people who must soldier on and try to make the best of what is shaping up to be a very bad year for many fruit growers in the Midwest and Northeast. From New York state to Wisconsin, farmers say they can’t recall a season as bad as this one.

Biersdorfer sure can’t. Besides all that Mother Nature has dished out, the walls on her house were falling in and had to be shored up a few months ago – no small expense. A widow, she operates her farm, including a market that’s open seven days a week, with her sons and grandsons.

When crops fell short in years past, they could purchase fruit from surrounding counties or states to make up for it. This year, there is little opportunity for that as fruit in those other areas was decimated, too.

So they’re making do with what they have.

Peaches are pretty, but tiny.

“Right now a lot of people are coming out for their peaches, and they understand,” Biersdorfer said. “I only had one lady walk this week because they were too tiny – she didn’t want ‘baby peaches.’”

Biersdorfer’s approximately 60 percent apple crop, much of it damaged by hail, will go to making cider.

Still, many costs are fixed. And two years of marginal crops exacts a financial toll.

“You pray a lot,” she said. “You borrow a lot.

“It’s kind of hard because this all used to be paid for. If I could visualize that many years back, over 45 to 46 years, that we would be this tremendously in debt, I never would have believed this.”

One bank has told her she’ll need to come up with a substantial amount by January. She doesn’t know how she’ll be able to do it. But somehow, Biersdorfer manages to sleep at night.

“I have learned over the years that you just cope,” she said.

Worst in 80 years

Larry DeVoe, of Devoe’s Rainbow Orchard in Halfmoon, N.Y., turns 80 this month. A farmer all of his life, he said he’s never seen a year as bad as this one.

DeVoe estimates an approximately 90 percent loss on his apple crop.

“We have one wind machine,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have had any apples.”

Then in June, the surviving apples they were counting on to stock their retail stand were hit with what he described as “the worst hail storm we’ve had in about 25 years.”

Even with half of the farm’s 40 acres out of commission since they turned 20 acres over and replanted two years ago, a normal crop would be about 14,000 bushels. If they’re lucky, they’ll hit 3,000 this season, he said.

Meanwhile, troublesome times for apples typically meant the farm could rely on its 40 acres of vegetables for revenue. Not so much now — not when there’s a drought like there has been this year.

“I’ve always had the vegetables to fall back on and this year, the vegetables are terrible,” he said.

DeVoe said he copes because there isn’t an alternative.

“There isn’t a thing we can do about it,” he said. “It’s Mother Nature.

“You just do the best you can. It’s a heck of a loss, and it’s a loss you can’t make up, because it’s just gone.”

That can be hard to reconcile, he admits, when you look at the banner crop of a couple of years ago.

“We had one of the biggest crops across New York and the East we’ve had in a while,” he said. “We picked just shy of 20,000 (bushels) that year, and we dumped 6,000 bushels in the field in the spring because we couldn’t sell them.”

Look to elders

Fourth-generation cherry farmer Greg Shooks of Central Lake near Traverse City, Mich., said he’s coped with the total loss of his farm’s 200 acres of sweet and tart cherries by looking to his father.

“There’s no doubt it’s a roller coaster,” Shooks said. “But the elders said, ‘This is the industry, this is farming.’

“They understand, and they’re kind of telling the next generation, ‘This is all part of the deal … you move on and prepare for next year, and be glad you have good years.’”

It’s helped that Shooks’ farm also has 400 head of cattle, 1,000 acres of row crops and 200 acres of wheat and canola to keep revenue flowing.

They’re still busy spraying trees to keep them healthy for next year. It also is proving practical – and therapeutic – to use some of the extra time on the farm this year to catch up on repairs and other maintenance.

“You’d lose your mind if you didn’t — at least on our farm here, if we just sat around and twiddled our thumbs,” he said. “I think that’s part of the whole progression for next year, to just keep moving and thinking ahead and not let the season’s devastation weigh on you and let it get to you.”

For Shooks, that means going home to his wife and two young daughters and trying to leave anxiety at the farm.

“It can be hard some days, but you know, you’re reminded of how lucky you are.”

‘Still fulfilling’

Craig Schultz made the choice to get into farming when he was in his 50s, retired from the military and unable to find a job. An “Orchard for Sale” sign caught his eye and that’s how he and his wife Pauline came to be the owners of their 140-acre Bushel and a Peck Orchard and Berry Farm in Chippewa Falls, Wis., 18 years ago.

This year’s topsy-turvy weather has pretty much turned things upside down for the Schultzes. They’re expecting to get about 40 percent of their normal apple crop, which grows on 40 acres. Their pears and plums are gone entirely, though their raspberries are looking good.

They’ve had to hire extra help to assist with watering and are keeping the grass extra short so it doesn’t use up water so badly needed by the trees. And the fruit they do harvest will come in weeks ahead of schedule, which means having to scramble to get their farm market open earlier than usual.

Despite the crazy year, Schultz said he and his wife still find fruit growing to be “fulfilling.”

“We have to adjust our expenses and try and make it through,” he said. “There are people who have had multiple (bad) years, of course, and … some people have gone broke. I think with one year, we should be able to survive.

“We know next year there will be apples.”

In fact, that sense of optimism seems universal.

“Basically, I think farmers have to be somewhat optimistic or they wouldn’t be in the game at all,” Schultz said.

But optimism aside, 2012 isn’t over yet. As Biersdorfer noted wryly, “We could get locusts, or beetles.”

By Kathy Gibbons, Editorial Director





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