Oct 6, 2021Michigan grower takes helm of USApple board
Chris Alpers is a fruit grower who is comfortable in the middle of an apple or cherry orchard, as well as in a boardroom.
The U.S. Apple Association recently named Alpers as the new chair to lead its board of directors to serve the 2021-2022 term.
A third-generation grower, Alpers is the operations manager of RedPath Orchards and Alpers Farms and a partner in Alpers Tree Sales in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, where he works with his father, Dave, to grow apples, as well as sweet and tart cherries.
Alpers’ leadership in USApple began when he was selected as a Young Apple Leader in 2014 and has since continued, including three years of service as a USApple officer. His immediate past role was vice chair of the USApple Board of Directors and chair of the organization’s government affairs committee. He has also served as chair of the communications committee.
“Chris is a combination of positive attitude, grower know-how and farm policy smarts,” said USApple President and CEO Jim Bair. “He was the first person to testify at the first hearing of the last farm bill, which is the kind of policy leadership we’re looking forward to. Although he’s busy running successful orchards and has two small children, he never says no to any request to put his shoulder to the wheel.”
Aside from his leadership with USApple, Alpers serves on the boards of the Michigan Apple Committee, the West Central Michigan Research Station, the Leland Township Board of Review and the Michigan State Horticulture Society, where he also serves as research chair. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Northern Michigan University. His wife Jessica (Rasch) is a sixth-generation grower, and their two children, Raymond and Harper, are seventh generation.
Alpers was named to the 2019 class of the the Fruit + Vegetable 40 Under 40 Awards, a recognition bestowed by Fruit Growers News and Vegetable Growers News that honors 40 outstanding individuals making their marks in the industry.
Taking a chance
On a recent Fruit Growers News visit to RedPath Orchards, Alpers stood by a block of Gale Galas, which was in its fourth leaf on Bud 9 rootstock as a test block of the farm’s initial high-density planting during a Michigan Pomesters visit in 2014. Alpers said at the time he had to convince his father that planting high-density apple orchards was the way to go to supplement the farm’s cherry operations and help attract sufficient work crews. He mentioned then that he was was still assessing how to best approach the process and had “learned a lot on the fly.”
“When you were here in 2014, this was the first little block of high-density my dad let me plant to see if it was going to work or not. I think he thought it was crazy when we started,” Alpers recalled. “A couple of years went by and we saw that we could do this successfully, and do it pretty well. The spacing was much different than we’re doing now (12 by 2 feet) because we didn’t have the equipment. We’re narrower now and a little less of the height for narrow type stuff. This panned out, it worked, we were happy with how it went and then we started putting in more plantings.
“The farm is probably 40% Gala now,” Alpers said. “We found that we could do that all right. We were getting good returns. Then came some early Fuji and then the Honeycrisp. We were probably a little bit late on that.”
Networking pays off
Alpers said he has “been lucky enough to meet all of the right people and have a lot of help. It helped make sure that I didn’t make the same mistakes that everybody else made. Everybody makes mistakes, but I’m sure mine would have been a lot worse than the serious guys downstate. Everybody’s been super helpful to point things out, with ‘you should do this, or you should try that.’ A lot of those things we just took into newer and newer plantings and now we’re doing what is probably the most efficient for us. It works for us.”
Alpers’ keen listening ear helps drive RedPath Orchards’ success.
“The best advice I got was considering the ground up here compared to downstate,” Alpers said. “For example, if you put a Nic 29 Honeycrisp in the ground up here you are going to have much different results than you do in Conklin (Michigan) or Sparta. The ground’s heavier down there. The tree’s more vigorous. That’s something that we are certainly jealous of. We wish we could grow a tree on certain roots like they can downstate and we don’t. They just behave differently up here, so we’ve had to think about what’s going to happen.
“Some of that was through trial-and-error,” Alpers said. “We’ve got a lot of advice that said don’t put a Bud 9 Honeycrisp in the ground up here because you’re never going to get that tree to the height that you want. Or if you crop it too early, you’re going to have a lot of trouble.
“A lot of nutritional-type stuff, I really followed the lead from people down in what I would say is the main apple-producing region. I’ve been lucky. My father-in-law (Joe Rasch) is a really good apple grower down there. He knows I’ve taken a lot of advice from that. I’ve learned a ton from them.”
Apples taking hold
RedPath Orchards now grows about 800 acres of cherries and 200 acres of apples. The farm in northwest Michigan is in an area that shied away from seriously growing apples until the last couple of decades, due to a number of obstacles. The research necessary to identify proper rootstock, irrigation and fertilization requirements in the region continues to pay dividends as the interest in crop diversification is expanding. Alpers pointed to the recent purchase of neighboring land by a downstate grower who plans to grow Honeycrisp apples.
“Cherries is a big part of our business for sure,” Alpers said. “Apples has helped us diversify in poor cherry years, and this is certainly a great example of that. It’s the worst crop of cherries we’ve had since 2012, and I would say we have the best crop of apples we’ve ever had, with a few exceptions. There’s a few spots missing.”
“The Honeycrisp up here look good,” Alpers said. “That is something that was short downstate. McIntosh up here look good and are a bit short downstate. So I think there’s going to be some value there that there typically isn’t. Washington has a ton of sunburn and smaller stuff than normal. Their size is shrinking every day. Diesel prices are high and so transport costs are much higher coming from Wenatchee to the Midwest. As much as farmers hate paying high fuel and freight costs, it’s probably a blessing if you’re in the apple business.”
The impact of the extended COVID-19 pandemic has challenged growers, Alpers said.
“It’s been so hard to get certain supplies or things that you need,” he said. “The trellis posts this spring were like gold. They were impossible to find if you didn’t have them ordered two years in advance. Thankfully, we were in good shape, but a lot of people I know struggled to find them. A lot of trees didn’t get planted in time because they didn’t have access to the trellising material. When you start planting trees in June, that’s not ideal.”
A varied background
Alpers has developed a strong interest in agricultural policy issues and advocating for industry needs.
“My dad has put me in a position to allow me to learn all of those things, too,” he said. “It’s tough to go to all that kind of stuff because the farm doesn’t stop running. Somebody still has to manage all of those things. If you’re in D.C. working on politics and that kind of stuff, that doesn’t mean we’re not shaking cherries or picking apples at home. He’s really encouraged me to do those things and I give him all the credit for that.
“When I was younger I didn’t think farming was the long-term future for me by any means, but I was picking rocks at 10 years old like every other farm kid was and I did that all through college. I actually got a degree in communications and marketing because I thought that was the route that I was going to go. I ended up working for Wilbur-Ellis in Acme up here when I graduated from school.”
Alpers credits Dale Steimel, a local cherry grower and agricultural sales representative Alpers worked with and got to know before Steimel died at the age of 47.
“He had a really good mind with fantastic people skills in terms of people trusting him. He had built a solid reputation up here. I learned a ton from him. A lot of that information was a good base. Unfortunately, he had an aneurism in his sleep and never woke up.”
When the family farm opportunity beckoned, “it was a pretty seamless transition to go back there. My dad has been good about the things I’m interested in. The things that I’m really good at he’s let me roll with it. All the nutrition stuff, spray program, managing the people. We’ve done a nice job there. His skillset is much different than mine, but are equally or more valuable. When I was a kid, we built a cherry shaker in the shop. He has that mechanical skill and ability to get things done. The science and chemistry behind farming is what I was interested in along with technology in ag, that being the future.”
Family shows teamwork
“I was picking stones when I was five,” Dave Alpers said. “My parents started farming back in the 1940s. I graduated in 1978, my dad retired in 1979 and moved off the farm and I took over. He was 67 when I graduated from high school.”
“If I graduated from high school and had to run the farm then, I wouldn’t have done a very good job,” Chris said.
“Things are a lot different today then they were 30 or 40 years ago,” Dave said. “I think this deal with the U.S. Apple, he’s only been chairman for a month, but he’s been on the board for several years. He has a whole network of people he’s bouncing questions off all the time. I think it’s great. I’m going to want to retire in three or four years. He might not be able to be as involved with organizations like USApple, because he’s probably not going to have time.”
“The only reason I got to do all that is because of the circumstances here on the farm,” Chris said. “If he was older, I would have needed to be here more. When I go to D.C. to do this or do that, things don’t stop here. Without him kind of pushing me down that road, but more importantly, being here, I wouldn’t be able to do it. The same thing with my wife (Jessica), too. I wouldn’t be able to do it without him and her wanting me to do it. I’d be gone from here too much. I have little kids and I don’t want to miss all of their baseball games and all of that. That’s why I needed to get involved right away.”
Another family connection, Alpers’ sister-in-law Katie Vargas, helped RedPath Orchards develop an H-2A farm labor program that has put the operation in good position to meet its workforce needs.
“Labor contacts are probably the most important relationships I have made,” he said. “How to get yourself involved with the H-2A program, how to manage that effectively, how to make it work in each individual situation. Credit there goes 100% to Katie. When she was working for Great Lakes Ag, we were one of their first clients up here. Without that, I really don’t know where we would be right now.”
– Gary Pullano, editor
Photo at top: Chris Alpers operates RedPath Orchards in Lake Leelanau, Michigan. He is the new chair of the U.S. Apple Association’s board of directors. Photo: Gary Pullano