Published in Food/Agribusiness
Microsprinkler systems are one of the few ways fruit farmers across West Michigan combat frost and stop it from damaging the developing buds on their trees. This year, farmers had to contend with an especially hard frost late in April. Microsprinkler systems are one of the few ways fruit farmers across West Michigan combat frost and stop it from damaging the developing buds on their trees. This year, farmers had to contend with an especially hard frost late in April. COURTESY PHOTO

Fruit growers optimistic after two-day frost scare

BY Sunday, May 09, 2021 04:45pm

As West Michigan fruit growers braced for two nights of hard frost in late April that would threaten their already developing buds, many in the industry and downstream economy feared a repeat of a disastrous 2012 season.

“That’s what’s in the back of everyone’s mind, though, because it’s just recent memory,” said Jamie Kober, enhancement director at Sparta Township-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. “Compared to that, though, we’re in great shape.”

No one can blame growers for having that notorious year stuck in the back of their mind. In 2012, an unusual weather pattern that started with 80 degree temperatures in late March was followed by a damaging frost that decimated the crop for fruit growers across the state. The weather wiped out 85 percent of Michigan’s apple crop and 90 percent of its tart cherries. Some West Michigan growers lost their entire crop that year.

Kober, whose company manages 860 acres of apple orchards on West Michigan’s fruit ridge, said that the industry hadn’t seen an event anywhere similar to that in the 70 years prior.

This year, West Michigan fruit growers faced a similar dynamic, but not nearly at the same magnitude. They had to grapple with two days of potentially devastating frost, leading to a couple sleepless nights spent out in the orchards to administer frost mitigation. While it might not have been at the scale of 2012, Kober said the weather was certainly concerning.

“What was unique about this is that we had three days in a row and two of them were in the critical zone,” he said. “Every event is going to nibble away at the crop. If we had one of those, we’re not really concerned. Two of them, it gets a little more concerning and we had a minor event maybe a few weeks prior to that, too.”

The industry is now creeping out of the danger zone as growers assess the damage to their current crop. While Kober said that the true effects of the two mornings of hard frost won’t be completely in focus for a month yet, he has not seen any indicators that would raise major concerns.

“You can go out and survey ... take flowers off and cut them in half to see if parts of the flower are damaged,” Kober said. “If it has any brown or discoloration, then it’s damaged or dead and won’t be a viable fruit. You can do that but you’re talking about hundreds of acres so it’s tough to get a good sample size. If the damage is there, then it’s there. The opportunity to mitigate it was weeks ago.”

Turning point

The 2012 season was a catalyst of sorts that pushed some growers to bolster their frost mitigation infrastructure — efforts that are paying off in a season like this one where those investments are being used to ward off damaging frost.

“After 2012, there were a lot of investments made in frost mitigation,” Kober said. “We are definitely seeing the benefits of those. We’re seeing that they’re effective, but they’re also expensive. That was probably the hesitation prior to 2012 but we’re seeing those methods are paying off and they’re worth it.”

Diane Smith, executive director of Lansing-based grower-funded nonprofit Michigan Apple Association, said that she also saw 2012 as a pivotal year.

“After the devastating crop loss of 2012, growers made significant investments in frost protection equipment, such as frost fans and sprinklers,” Smith said. “In addition, apple trees have some natural defense mechanisms such as foliage, that help to retain heat. … Apple growers have a long history of battling Mother Nature in the spring. Growers are part scientist, part artist and part gambler.” 

Even though some innovations might have stemmed from 2012, battling frost with everything from fans to sprinklers to helicopters is an old practice. It’s part of doing business as a fruit grower in West Michigan, and arguably one of the most stressful aspects.

“This year was outside the ordinary (weather pattern),” said Anna Wallis, apple production specialist with Michigan State University Extension. “Farmers love to talk about the weather, and it’s always a source of stress. That’s not new.”

Revenue Channels

The health of a grower’s apple or other fruit crop ultimately drives profitability, making the battle against frost and other variables a high-stakes game.

A farmer’s apples, for instance, have three different available channels in the industry. Producing fresh market apples — well-sized varieties with minimal defects — yields the highest profit. Small apples with some defects are sold and used for processing for items such as apple slices and apple sauce. The least profitable among apples are those used for cider and juice products. These available channels ensure that, even if frost wreaks havoc on a crop and hurts the quality of apples, farmers are able to generate some revenue off their crop, even if it’s not optimal.

“There is a big (price) discrepancy between market fresh apples and processing apples,” said Wallis, who is based in Kent County, the top apple-producing county in Michigan. “The goal is to produce as much fresh market fruit as you can. But, growers don’t get much control over how they sell their apples. The retailers decide that.”

Michigan is the third-largest apple producer in the country behind Washington and New York. The state is home to 14.9 million apple trees spread across 34,500 acres of orchards.

As such a large player in the national and international fruit industry, the rest of the country takes note when Michigan faces conditions that might compromise the condition and quantity of its crop.

“If you have had apple slices at McDonald’s, then you have probably had Michigan apples,” Wallis said. “(Michigan apples) are in a lot of main retail avenues.”

“We stay in touch with colleagues across the country in order to manage all aspects of apple production,” Wallis added. “This includes major frost damage that other state industries will have to react to. We try to coordinate efforts.”

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