Some Michigan apple farmers expect to make far less money this season after a springtime frost damaged a portion of the state’s crop.
Apple analysts expect an estimated 20.3 million bushel crop, down 28 percent from a robust 28 million bushels in 2016 and down 4 million bushels or about 17 percent from an average year, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.
But it’s almost a blessing for some as they struggle to find enough workers amid a longstanding migrant labor shortage. The lack of migrant fruit pickers is worsened, other Michigan farmers argue, by a perceived backlash against those who hire foreign workers.
The decline in production is not expected to have much of an impact on the varieties available this fall, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.
“Obviously the crop is down, but people will still be able to find Michigan apples,” she said.
Smith said she does not anticipate the under-average crop will make it harder to find cider. But it is difficult to say this early in the season whether prices of apples and apple products will increase because costs fluctuate by the time apples land on the shelves, she said.
Mike Beck, who oversees the Uncle John’s cider mill orchard near St. John outside Lansing, doesn’t think customers will see much of a difference on sticker prices on store shelves. His orchard attracts about 350,000 visitors a year.
Beck said he considers himself almost lucky to have a light crop this year because he is so short on workers. He said he has found eight of the 20 or more migrant workers he normally employs and needs to pick apples and fears that President Donald Trump’s approach to migrant labor will continue to make hiring difficult.
“Top leadership in America is very biased against the people that we hired to get the job done,” Beck said. “This weighs heavier on my mind than anything else that has happened in the last 15 years.”
While the Michigan Farm Bureau has said it’s hard to quantify any impact from Trump’s hard-line immigration rhetoric or more aggressive deportation efforts, apple farmer Jim Koan in Flushing also fears a growing shortage of fruit pickers.
“That’s always been a really, really scary nightmare, every year,” Koan said.
This year’s frost is the second worst that Koan remembers. In early May, the temperature dipped below freezing, killed blossoms and stunted pollination even as growers installed frost fans to pull warmer air into the orchards.
Selling hard cider and donuts can help reel in dollars to make up for the loss of apples, especially because hard cider has a long shelf life. A good crop one year can pay off for several years, Koan said.
But a bad year can sting, too, especially because overhead costs are constant, he said. Koan only last year recovered from the devastating 2012 crop loss when frost killed 97 percent of the state’s apples.
“We lost a lot of money,” said Koan, who estimates this season he has lost as much as $500,000. “I still have to prune the trees; I still have to spray them.”
Koan said it could take several years to recover from this year’s damage.
Some other operators, such as Franklin Cider Mill in Bloomfield Hills, weren’t hampered by the frost. Marlene Hamlyn, the mill’s manager, said it will have the same apple varieties it always has and that prices will be the same.
Hay rides and other events help at orchards. Popular varieties such as Honeycrisp — which fetch a premium price — also help, farmers say.
Although growers were “not dealt a great hand,” the Apple Committee’s Smith said she is optimistic about the resilience of farmers. Crop insurance helps with easing the financial loss of a bad year.
“I think that they’re well-adapted to this type of situation,” she said. “They have up years, they have down years.”
Some farms employ fans, fires and other tools to keep the frost at bay. But not all farmers have them.
Insurance helps, but coverage for apple orchards can vary widely, said Michigan Farm Bureau insurance expert Ryan Fox.
Most apple farmers in the state will take out a policy that covers 50 percent of their crop, Fox said. Farmers can purchase better coverage in 5 percent increments going up to 85 percent of the orchard.
But it could cost $25,000 or $30,000 to cover 50 percent of a 50-acre orchard, Fox said.
“It’s not inexpensive,” he said.
Rates are set by a risk management agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and farmers have to choose a plan about a year before harvest season.
Dave Gavin, who tends the Gavin Orchards in west Michigan’s Coopersville, said his crop is down significantly this year. The farm pays a $25,000 annual insurance premium that doesn’t make up for all of the losses, he said, “but that’s just how it goes.”
“We are focusing a little heavier on our vegetables and trying to run them a little later in the fall than what we would have if we had a larger (apple) crop,” he added. “But that’s really about all we can do. There’s really only so many options.”