Michigan apple growers foresee record year

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News


The apple harvest in Michigan has begun, and growers may be harvesting more fruit this fall than ever before.

With the warm summer and recent rains, the crop is looking to be a record, farmers say.

“Using quality as a gauge,” said Dennis Hoxsie of Hoxsie’s Farm Market east of Traverse City, “it’s probably going to be a record harvest. The quality this year is superb.”

His family grows seven varieties of apples, with the Honey Crisp by far the most popular. The apple is known for its crisp texture and is firm and tasty.

The Michigan Apple Committee estimated in August this year’s harvest would exceed last year’s by 7 million bushels, producing a record-size crop of 31 million bushels.

“We have seen a steady increase in crop size each year,” said Diane Smith, the committee’s executive director. “This is due in large part because of technological advances and the increase in the number of growers planting high-density orchards of 1,000 or more trees per acre.”

Smith said warm temperatures in the summer and the early fall rains made the quality, taste and appearance of this year’s apples outstanding.

But don’t expect a record crop to affect prices for apples and apple products at the grocery store or restaurants.

Mike Rothwell, president and general manager of Bell Harvest Sales in Belding, thinks prices for the huge Michigan crop will change very little.

“We’ve had crops in the past of 20 million to 30 million bushels,” he said. “The infrastructure is there to handle an additional million bushels. I think it will be a relatively normal year for market prices.”

Bell Harvest is one of the largest fresh apple marketers in the eastern Unites States and sells the fruit all over the world.

Michigan is the third largest apple producer in the United States, behind Washington state and New York. This year’s harvest estimate ranks apples as one of Michigan’s most valuable and largest fruit crops, along with cherries.

Apples with names such as Red Delicious, Cortland, Idared, and Jonagold are just some of the 16 varieties grown on 11.3 million apple trees covering 35,500 acres. The Hoxsie farm is one of 825 family-run farms in the state.

“We were fortunate that we had no hail damage,” Hoxsie said. “There will be a huge demand for juice apples for use in hard cider, apple sauces, apple butters and juice. And because of the hail that swept through on July 8 there will be a lot of apples available,” Hoxsie said.

Apples with minor damage are used for juice and other applications. Most apple orchards save about half of their crop as fresh fruit; the rest goes toward commercial use.

The growing season wasn’t without setbacks for some. A severe storm battered northern Michigan in early July with hail that was anywhere from quarter-sized to three inches, according to Damaged fruit is more susceptible to pests and pathogens.

Bill Rennie of Rennie Orchards, a few miles north of the Hoxsie farm in northern Grand Traverse County, discovered apples in his orchard suffered severe hail damage from the storm. Dime-size hail punched large holes in the fruit.

The harvest is “not going the way we had hoped,” said Rennie, 74, whose operation has 14 varieties of apples on 20 acres.

Jim Bardenhagen of Suttons Bay is a sixth-generation fruit farmer and said he has never seen such a large crop.

A mostly favorable weather pattern throughout the growing season has made for good quality fruit, which he began harvesting in late August. He expects about 1,000 bushels per acre; a normal year would be 700 bushels.

Bardenhagen has harvested the early Ginger Gold apples, with the popular Honey Crisp, which he planted in 1998, to be harvested next.

Scott Wells of Wells Orchards near Grand Rapids has a good crop, but he expects the harvest to be about average.

“We had a really large crop last year, so it’s a little difficult to match that,” he said.” But the apples look great and the harvest began a little early, due to the extended heat of summer.”

Wells expects about 80 percent of his orchard’s harvest will be sold as fresh fruit and will better know if the yield is record-breaking after the harvest is complete.

Wells’ orchard is part of what is considered “The Ridge,” which spans Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon counties on the state’s west side.

The soil, left thousands of years ago from glaciers, hold moisture well, which is good for farming. The Ridge is eight miles wide and 20 miles long, according to an MSU extension service report.

Michigan apples will be shipped to 27 states and 18 countries worldwide, according to Smith.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.