Drought-like conditions and damaging storms throughout June and the first half of July will likely hamper what would have been a substantial harvest for some Michigan crops this year.
A consensus of agriculture industry watchers and farmers said the severe weather has yet to cut deeply into profits for the industry as a whole, but it has caused significant damage to key commodities.
In early July, a severe storm with high winds and golf-ball-size hail tore through orchards in Northern Michigan, leveling a substantial portion of this year’s tart and sweet cherry crop.
Initial estimates forecast that 60 percent — or approximately 30 million pounds — of the cherry crop was damaged in some fashion during the storm.
Central Lake-based Shooks Farms Company LLC, based in Antrim County northeast of Traverse City, sustained heavy damage to one of its secondary orchards and minor damage to its primary orchard, said owner Greg Shooks. Overall, Shooks said a small percentage of cherries grown on his 300 acre-orchard were damaged, but the extent of the damage won’t be known until the crop is harvested later this month and in early August.
“Some area growers did sustain significant damage,” Shooks said. “It doesn’t leave the grower with a whole lot of options for the fruit.”
Cherries knocked to the ground after the storm are not marketable and those that still remain on the trees may be damaged and only suitable for the juice or processed market.
In addition to severe storms, Michigan farmers have also been navigating drought-like conditions in much of the western and central portions of the state.
Dry conditions forced Michigan’s asparagus industry to suspend its harvest roughly a week early, said John Bakker, the executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.
Ending the season early shaved approximately 8 percent off production and cost growers about $1.5 million statewide, Bakker said. The asparagus industry, which is primarily concentrated in Oceana County, typically produces 22 million pounds of asparagus a year valued at $20 million when it is sold to grocery stores and food processors.
“We’ll be close to normal production levels, but (we) were on pace to have a really good season. Unfortunately, it got too dry,” Bakker said, adding that a lack of frost in the spring did help even out the impacts of the dry weather.
“What mother nature gave us in the spring, she took away at the end of the season,” he said.
Farmers in major asparagus-growing areas received roughly three tenths of an inch of rain throughout the month of June, said Kevin Robson, an associate horticulture specialist who focuses on fruit and vegetable crops for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“Asparagus doesn’t like dry (conditions),” Robson said. “The heads begin to split and it’s unattractive to customers. (Farmers) live and die by the rain coming out of the sky because there’s not a lot of acreage on irrigated ground.”
The severe weather of late hasn’t impacted all growers equally. Grand Rapids-based Heffron Farms, a grower of soybeans, wheat and other row crops, has been able to avoid the bulk of wind and drought damage, said owner Dennis Heffron.
“We’ve had quite a lot of wind this year and it knocked some of the wheat down, but we’ve come through it pretty good,” he said.
Kate Krepps, an associate field crop specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau who focuses on field crops, said this year has been out of character compared to previous seasons.
For example, instead of rains that cover a wide area, this year’s precipitation has been highly scattered, oftentimes blowing in very quickly with damaging winds and hail, Krepps said.
“We haven’t gotten those blanket rains that cover the state this year,” she said. “They seem to go through rapid fire. It’s just one of those things where the weather is always unpredictable.”
The Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board’s research farm, located just outside Hart, received one inch of rain over 13 separate rain events over the month of June, Bakker said.
While asparagus farmers have traditionally not needed irrigation since the crop is inherently drought-resistant and is grown during a wet season, many are investing in the technology given this year’s lack of precipitation.
“Be it climate change or whatever, we are getting into situations where we we might consider widespread irrigation in the near future,” Bakker said.
While the state has received some precipitation over the last two weeks, Krepps is hopeful that there’s more rain in sight, especially since a wet spring already delayed planting for some farmers this year.
“It’s just been a really weird year, and there’s a lot of farmers just scratching their heads,” Krepps said. “That’s why they call farmers the ultimate risk-takers because one of the key elements they need for their business is for the weather to cooperate, and you don’t know if it will.”
While a lack of rainfall has negatively impacted some farmers in the state, it’s come as a benefit to others.
“The lack of water has been really good for us because we have sweet cherries (and) any rain we would have gotten would have filled them to bursting and cracked them,” said Kim Overhiser, owner of Overhiser Orchards in South Haven.
The dry weather also has benefited Overhiser Orchards’ peach crop, since the fruit doesn’t require a lot of rainfall and any additional water dilutes the flavor, Overhiser said.
Overall, Overhiser Orchards — which maintains 250 acres and also grows apricots, pears and other fruits — predicts 2016 to be one of the orchard’s best harvest years to date.
The effects of adverse weather events for some crops such as apples will likely be offset somewhat by the substantial amount of new acreage coming into production this year, said Robson of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
With new additions, the state now has 36,000 acres of apple production. The industry expects the 2016 apple crop to reach 26.3 million bushels, up by nearly 4 million bushels compared to the previous year and a roughly evenly split mix of fresh and processed apples.
Conklin-based Schaefer Cider Company LLC planted 4,000 new trees three years ago that will come into full production this year, said Andy Schaefer, the business manager of the orchard. The company will have an additional 4,000 trees come online next year and planted an additional 40 acres of trees this year that should yield fruit by 2019.
“It’s the same for a lot of farms,” Schaefer said. “There’s a lot of new acres going in the last couple years that are coming online, even though this year it looks like the fruit per tree is less.”
Although it’s still too early to tell if a lack of rain will persist and in some way hurt the apple crop, Schaefer remains optimistic overall about this year’s harvest.
“It’s looking great this year, (but) hopefully we get more rain and catch up,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from its previous version to clarify information on Michigan’s estimated apple production for 2016.