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Late frost, rain wreak havoc on Michigan harvests

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

A variety of Michigan’s most important fruit crops, including apples, grapes, cherries and blueberries, are expected to have lower than average harvests, the result of spring frosts and a damp summer.

But other crops, such as asparagus, came in at expected or even record-setting levels, showing off both the state’s dominance in these areas and growers’ prowess in managing their fields, agriculture experts say.

Michigan asparagus growers picked an estimated 20 million pounds recently; that is the highest reported crop yield since 2009, said Kevin Robson, associate horticulture specialist at the Center for Commodity, Farm & Industry Relations for the Michigan Farm Bureau in Lansing. The challenge now is getting crops of all kinds harvested at a time when labor shortages and wet weather are plaguing farmers in different parts of the state, Robson noted.

“Periodic rainfall is a good thing. But, just like everything else, too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” Robson said.

That is especially true with fruit and vegetables that grow on the vine, such as squash, cucumbers, muskmelons and watermelons, Robson said. Crops in the state’s southern counties have had excessive rain, and that put most vines under water and will likely result in smaller harvests.

Consumers are unlikely to see higher prices in grocery stores or farmers markets because of slight declines in Michigan’s fruit production, Robson said.

“We shouldn't bear the burden on the store shelves,” Robson said, noting that farmers will channel any available product not set to be exported or sent to processors into the marketplace, especially “where the climate is more economically viable and attractive.”

At the annual “Fruit Crop Guesstimate,” held every June, Michigan growers predicted the blueberry crop will come in at an estimated 65 million pounds this year; in 2014, that crop produced about 97 million pounds, Robson said. Sweet cherries got hit with two significant frosts, causing a drop in production from 59 million pounds in 2014 to about 15 million this year.

“If sweet cherries get too much rain, they’ll crack. You want sunny, 80 degree days,” explained Philip J. Korson II, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute in Lansing.

Tart cherry production will come in at about 146.5 million pounds versus 203 million in 2014. At full capacity, Michigan’s tart cherry growers have the ability to manage a 275 million pound crop, Robson added.

Apples, which are able to withstand cold temperatures better than most fruit trees, look like they will come in with around 24 million bushels, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee. Last year, the total was roughly 27 million. An official estimate will come out in August, Smith said.

“Apple trees are very hearty; they can do well in up to negative 25 degrees,” Smith said. “This year’s crop is coming along nicely. There’s a lot to look forward to, and we’re ready for fall.”

Grapes are another story. The last two cold winters have been particularly difficult, said Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. For example, northwest Michigan lost a portion of its vine productivity when a May frost affected plants just coming out of dormancy.

“They suffered a double whammy with cold damage from two winters and a late spring frost,” Jones said. “In good years, growers have to thin the grapes to get the flavor profile that they want. This year, Mother Nature has done some of that thinning for us. But we would prefer to be able to control it more ourselves.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.