Jun 4, 2015
Michigan still adjusting to crop losses of 2012

2012 was a bad year for many fruit-producing states, but none were hit harder than Michigan. An early warm-up followed by devastating freeze events killed roughly 85 percent of the state’s apples and nearly 90 percent of its tart cherries that year. Both industries had to make major adjustments to survive – and they’re still feeling the effects three years later.

New reality

“Everyone is hoping we will never see another 2012 in our lifetime,” said Dawn Drake, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s (MFB) apple division.

The crop loss that year was a shock to the system, but Don Armock, president of grower/packer/shipper Riveridge Produce, believes the Michigan apple industry emerged from it stronger than before. The crisis forced packers and growers to make improvements – or gave them time to make improvements they hadn’t deemed important enough. Sellers improved their marketing, communications, packaging and branding efforts. Packers installed new lines and made other upgrades. Growers replanted, trained trees and generally made their production units more efficient, he said.

Every spring, you can hear another legacy of 2012 in Michigan’s orchards: The roar of frost fans. That roar is an “overwhelming reminder of the sheer number of machines that growers have installed,” Armock said.

“We learned a lot about the science of frost prevention, so lots of tactics have become a part of growers’ operations that didn’t exist before the lost crop,” he said.

More growers are buying crop insurance now, and coverage has been expanded. The disaster loans that helped many survive 2012 are now coming due. It’s a formidable burden, but those loans provided a “bridge” that kept the industry afloat, Armock said.

Marketing, sales

Since losing most of its crop in 2012, Michigan’s tart cherry industry has been aggressively pursuing domestic and international markets for its products. The industry was put in a difficult position that year. Processors had to source fruit from Europe to help backfill supply. Marketers had to spend a lot of time explaining the situation to customers and assuring them that Michigan tart cherries would be back in 2013, said Phil Korson, executive director of the Cherry Marketing Institute.

With help from grants and high-quality fruit, the industry managed to recapture many markets in 2013 and 2014, despite competition from imported product, Korson said.

“We are optimistic about the future,” he said.

Michigan’s processing apple slicers are in a similar position. After many had to buy apples from Washington in 2012 just to keep customers supplied, they managed to regain about 75 percent of their normal business in 2013. The 2014 crop has struggled against cheap prices, however, Drake said.

Armock said Riveridge lost some key customers in 2012, but a good selling season the next year helped reverse some of the damage.

Labor

2012 exacerbated an already dire labor situation. An aging work force and other factors were already shrinking the traditional labor pool, but the lack of a crop that year forced workers to find jobs in other states, and many didn’t come back in 2013, Drake said.

Even if a normal number of workers had shown up in 2013 – which didn’t happen – the crop was so large that season that they still wouldn’t have been enough. Adding to an already stressful situation for growers, there was a high number of workers who had never picked apples before and needed extra training, said Amy Irish-Brown, a Michigan State University Extension educator.

The glaring need for training also became apparent in packing plants, which led to more formalized instruction programs, Armock said.

Riveridge had to get creative to retain key personnel in 2012, but the moves it made led to stronger, more well-rounded employees – which is paying dividends now and into the future. Some staff members were sent to perform tasks for other producers that year. For example, the company’s food safety manager was contracted to operations in other regions to help them design and implement food safety programs. The company also moved some staff to the farming side of the business for a while, which gave them a deeper understanding of that aspect of the operation, Armock said.

Growers are doing what they can to combat labor shortages in the field. Some are working with more platforms and other labor-saving technology. It also appears that a significant amount of housing is being built to accommodate workers who are still in the migrant stream, Armock said.

In 2014, MFB created a pilot project to help guide a handful of apple growers through the H-2A guest-worker program. More Michigan growers are considering hiring H-2A workers, Drake said.

“Likely, we were going to have to adjust to the declining migrant population anyway, but no crop really brought a sense of urgency to the need to find another way,” Armock said.

Biennial bearing?

When the trees lost most of their apples in 2012, it was expected they would store up their energy and produce huge yields in 2013. But there were fears those extremes would lead to a biennial bearing cycle and inconsistent crop size from year to year.

Irish-Brown doesn’t think biennial bearing is an issue for modern Michigan growers, however, who thin well and ensure a return bloom each year. Michigan’s inconsistent apple crop has more to do with spring frosts and freezes.

“In recent years (say the last 20 years), for every year Michigan apple production was less than average, I could easily point to a cold event that created the issue and not necessarily the biennial bearing tendency that some cultivars do exhibit,” she said.

Matt Milkovich

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