May 15, 2019
New Michigan Apple chair, Mark Youngquist, positive on future

A fifth-generation apple man with optimism for the future will lead Michigan growers.

The Michigan Apple Committee Board of Directors this spring elected Mark Youngquist as its chairman. The grower-funded, nonprofit committee promotes marketing, education and research activities to distinguish the Michigan apple and encourage sales.

Youngquist, 59, has seen both fruitful, and, occasionally, barren years even within the last decade, but said he’s excited about where modern apple growing is headed.

“It’s like a whole new industry to me,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a change of things that I just find fascinating.”

Tool time

Like most other good business owners, Youngquist has been skeptical about investing in expensive equipment. But past hardships, he said, have persuaded him.

For example, take western Michigan’s cold snap of May 2012 – an extreme year that hadn’t previously been seen in Michigan. An unseasonably warm spring had caused the apple trees to show green tips about a month early, and nightly frosts in the middle of that month killed most of the flowers. Except, that is, for the few growers who had fans to circulate the air and prevent a frost.

“The few people who had them, ran them,” Youngquist said. “The guys that ran it and never gave up, they did have some fruit, but very limited.”

Even in those few, fan-warmed orchards, the results weren’t pretty, but it was enough to make him a believer. Tools can help growers survive season to season.

That particular season, 2012, was a disruptive year for Michigan apple growers, who spent the year maintaining orchards without the hope of a harvest. It disturbed the growers’ labor supply and hurt vendors who sold to growers.

“It takes years to recover from something like that,” Youngquist said. And a disruption in its supply wasn’t good for future sales, either. Today, fans are ubiquitous throughout the Fruit Ridge in West Michigan and other growing regions in the state.

“Michigan increased their efforts to put a consistent crop out there,” Youngquist said. He himself added another fan this spring. “Another fan a year, we add them, protecting as much acreage as we can.”

A family tradition

Youngquist grows fewer than 200 acres of apples on the Fruit Ridge, an elevated geographical formation near Grand Rapids in western Michigan that’s a major apple-production region. The farm grows about 12 different cultivars.

“We’re working with a lot of Honeycrisp in the ground, like everybody else,” Youngquist said. “We’re raising whatever people want to buy in big quantities.”

Picking typically begins with earlier coloring Honeycrisp at the end of August and continues until Pink Ladies and Fujis to end of October or early November.

“Over my lifetime, we’ve had a long picking season, and over the last decade it got kind of a narrower window as we removed varieties,” Youngquist said. “Now, it’s getting longer again where we have some really early and really late varieties to pick, also.”

The Youngquist family originally came from Sweden in the 1870s. Fourth-generation grower Wayne Youngquist remains “extremely active” on the farm at 86 years of age. Mark, his wife Kathryn, his son, Jordan, and his wife Laura are partners in Youngquist Farms. A seventh-generation of farm ownership and operation seems possible –Jordan and Laura as sixth-generation partners have five children.

But thinking that far ahead takes a certain amount of optimism.

Future hope

Youngquist’s predecessor, Tony Blattner of Belding, served on the Michigan Apple Committee for nearly a decade and as chairman for six years. In the other leadership changes announced by the committee, Michael Dietrich of Conklin was elected vice chair and Damon Glei of Hillsdale will serve as third member of the executive committee.

Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said in a news release that Blattner had represented Michigan growers well.

“Mark, Mike and Damon will continue to serve the industry in their leadership roles, providing direction as our staff continues working toward the mission of helping Michigan apple growers be successful,” she said.

The state’s apple sales are increasingly more consolidated. Riveridge Produce Marketing has acquired the sales of Jack Brown Produce and is now selling roughly half of the state’s apples.

As a Jack Brown grower, Mark Youngquist was affected by the switch, and said he sees the upside.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, but I see a lot of positives,” he said. “Michigan growers should not be competing against each other. We’re building on each other.”

The same goes for research.

“We’re building on Cornell and New York state and other universities,” he said. “We do work really well together. Cornell may be researching one item and Michigan State University another, and they work together.”

“I get a little philosophical about things,” he said. “Even in my lifetime, there’s been a lot of changes – how many trees you plant, the equipment, the labor, the marketing – everything.” Youngquist said that despite “hard challenges” such as a labor shortage, industry groups are coming together to try to work it out. Growers are already seeing the fruits, so to speak, of the last generation of innovations’ including high-density plantings. Bad years – such as those filled with cold snaps and windstorms – can be survived.

“We’ve had some extreme challenges, and I’ve watched my peers meet them as a group, as a state,” he said. From industry officials to those picking fruit, storing fruit or running a forklift, “everybody cares about what they’re doing and really cares about a good, clean food supply.”

“That’s what makes this whole thing work, is the people,” Youngquist said. That makes him more excited for the future. He’s excited to see how his son’s generation can reform their families’ farms.

“I’m going to stick with it, and be in business for a lot of years to come,” he said.

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