Record lows to record highs: Michigan fruit growers’ incredible comeback story

Mar 31, 2014

It’s been a couple of roller coaster years for the state’s fruit growers.

Michigan apple growers had the most dramatic ride. 80-degree weather in March 2012, followed by multiple freezes caused total crop failure that fall, the worst since 1945.

But in 2013, “we had a beautiful, bountiful, record crop,” said Dawn Drake. She’s manager of the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association's apple processing division.

She says they produced 1.26 billion pounds of apples last fall. Compare that to the measly 115 million pounds in 2012.

There were so many apples last fall, she says growers had to leave up to five million bushels behind to rot.

“They had to go evaluate block by block of fruit, based on variety, of what blocks were going to return them the most money because many of them knew that they weren’t going to be able to harvest the entire crop,” Drake said.

Drake says a shortage of farm laborers remains the number one issue facing apple growers.

Michigan blueberry growers also had a record year, bringing in an estimated 114 million pounds. That tops the previous record of 110 million pounds set in 2008. Blueberry growers weren’t hit nearly as hard in 2012 as apple, peach, and cherry growers. It was the worst year on record for Michigan's tart cherry growers.

Although 2013 wasn't a record good year, tart cherry growers rocked it out too with good quantity and quality.

“I think that we came back with a good crop fast enough that we were as an industry ok. But clearly we as an industry lost a tremendous amount of money in 2012 strictly because we didn’t have access to crop insurance,” Phil Korson, President of the Cherry Marketing Institute said.

Korson says cherry growers are marketing hard against imports from Poland and Turkey, which filled much of the demand for tart cherries in 2012.

“We’re not going to get all our markets back, we know that, but our goal is to get as many as we can,” he said.

Both Korson and Drake are optimistic about the 2014 growing season, because of stepped up marketing efforts and, so far, a slow and steady spring warm up. Korson says the cooler weather may push back the beginning of cherry harvest season.

This year's numbers are all industry estimates. The USDA normally produces the numbers each winter, but because of sequestration, the official numbers won't be released until sometime this summer.