Oct 13, 2020
Climate change or not, NW Ohio, SE Michigan apple growers are hurting this fall

Call it climate change or yet another anomaly. But this fall’s apple crop is no bumper crop here in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, thanks to a late-spring freeze and late-summer drought.

According to a story in the Toledo Blade, yields are down – way down, and almost nonexistent for some varieties – and those trees which have produced fruit have generally grown smaller-than-normal apples, orchard operators say.

In southern Monroe County’s Erie Township, just a few miles north of the Ohio border, grower Michael Demski figures his yield at Demski Orchard is down two thirds to three quarters this year because of the herky-jerky weather.

The season began promising, with unusual warmth sustained in the early part of spring. But then the freeze came back, and a drought punctuated the rigors that apples were up against.

“You may recall that we had an early warm spell and the fruit trees began to bloom with what looked to be a very beautiful and bountiful crop,” Mr. Demski said. “Then the bottom dropped out with a return of winter for a couple of weeks.”

Funky weather is, of course, nothing new to farmers. But some, such as Mr. Demski, claim the funkiness seems to be getting more frequent from year to year.

“What I’m noticing are huge swings,” he said. “That was a huge swing difference that definitely was not the norm.”

So far 2020 has been a wicked year.

In addition to the world’s worst pandemic in 102 years killing nearly 215,000 people nationwide and more than a million people more globally, America has coped with racial unrest in response to a spate of brutality, some incidents involving police and some not.

We’ve seen one of the most contentious presidential election campaigns in America’s history.

And now – of all things – the time-honored, all-American fruit, the apple, is hurting.

Mr. Demski calls this year’s yield “definitely one of the worst, just because of the sheer volume [loss] of the crop.”

A pick-your-own family outing, now, during what is traditionally the peak time for doing that?

Good luck. It isn’t happening.

“At this point,” Mr. Demski said, “my apples are pretty limited and picked-over, with very few remaining in a season that should normally last through October.”

The Blade also reported:

Every tragedy has a silver lining, though, and this one is the availability of locally grown apples at roadside stands, farmers’ markets, and stores.

Alex Buck, president of the Fruit Growers’ Marketing Association and the statewide group Ohio Apples, told The Blade it’s important for families to know there are still locally grown apples available even if the homespun you-pick tradition is largely being put on hold this fall.

The statewide yield is estimated to be only 60 percent this year. And he agreed that, generally, trees have produced smaller apples.

The apple industry is adapting to climate change better than some agricultural sectors because of some new, more weather-resistant varieties.

“They’re always coming out with new strains,” Mr. Buck said.

But 2020 has not been kind to apple growers in general.

“From a statewide perspective, we didn’t fare well compared to other years,” he said.

Mr. Demski, 59, grew up in Toledo and is a 1979 graduate of the former Macomber High School. His late parents, Lawrence Demski, Sr. and Jane Demski, bought the Erie Township home where he lives adjacent to his orchard, which he and his father began planting in 1978.

Mr. Demski said his “real job” is as a building inspector for Erie Township and Luna Pier. He has kept his orchard going as a tribute to his parents.

“I’m trying to keep that tradition up, whether I make any money at it or not,” Mr. Demski said.

He said his orchard is “kind of between a hobby and a business.”

“I say I’m too large to be a hobby and too small to be a business,” Mr. Demski said.

This year, he said, he’s going to be lucky if he covers his costs.

Over in Ottawa County, Witt Orchards doesn’t have a you-pick business, but is a fixture at Toledo’s Erie Street Market and has established a loyal following since it was established as a family-run operation in the early 1960s.

It also does a lot of walk-up business at its main gate at 8060 Titus Rd., near Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Michael Demski holds an apple for a portrait around largely barren trees Oct. 7 at Demski Orchard in Erie, Mich.  Photo: Toledo Blade/Kurt Steiss

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