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US (MI): State apple crop nearly wiped out

Dave Pagel, the chairman of the Berrien County Board of Commissioners and the owner of a fruit packing and shipping company, typically trucks out 10,000 20-bushel bins of apples each season.

This year, because of an unseasonably warm March followed by freezes in April that devastated trees, he expects that he will ship no more than 500 bins, or 5 percent of normal.

"It's the worst in my lifetime," said Pagel, owner of Dave Pagel Produce, a company he founded in 1978 at the age of 23.

A Michigan apple growers association has confirmed the worst fears about this year's crop of apples and other fruit.

Michigan apple growers' harvest this year is expected to be less than 10 percent of last year's harvest, the Michigan Processing Apple Growers reported this week.

The organization estimated the statewide volume of apples for 2012 at 2.5 million bushels. That's in contrast to last year's harvest of around 27 million bushels.

The 57th annual Frozen Food Packers Association projected that 84,000 bushels would to be picked in Southwest Michigan.

Based on what he has heard from local growers, those estimates sound right, said Pagel, who also has a 20-acre apple orchard.

Farmers won't even be able afford to spray the apples that are left, he said.

Lee LaVanway, manager of the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, said it is impossible to predict the impact of the economic losses because they are "unprecedented in Michigan history. We've never, ever had anything to compare it to."

Farmers try to save up to get through bad years, but this is like having two or three bad years in a row, Pagel said. "It will take several years for them to bounce back."

Pagel employs up to 20 people at his business, but without much for them to pack and ship he is afraid he will have to lay some people off.

Other fruits, including cherries, grapes and peaches, took a huge hit as well, as warm weather coaxed buds to open early, only to be blasted by hard freezes that killed the crops. Berries held up better.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton have asked Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to issue disaster declarations for the 72 affected counties, including Berrien, Cass and Van Buren, and to provide support to farmers and processors.

A letter from Michigan legislators to Vilsack estimates that the economic loss to fruit and asparagus crops alone will exceed $220 million.

The Michigan Apple Committee calculates that apples have an $800 million annual impact on the state's economy.

The tart cherry crop in Southwest Michigan is expected to be 5,000 bushels, a drastic reduction from last year's 152,000 bushels, according to the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association, which released the processors' report.

For the entire state, which produces three-fourths of the nation's tart cherries, the yield is estimated at 120,000 bushels, compared with last year's crop of 1.86 million bushels.

The processors' report shows that New York's apple crop also was hit hard by frost this spring, but that Washington state has seen excellent growing conditions and its crop is likely to be 20 percent larger than last year.

Michigan apple growers don't get paid the same amount as growers from New York, Washington or even New Zealand, LaVanway said.

A bushel of apples, at 42 pounds, sells for $84 at the supermarket, but the farmer "if he's lucky" gets $8 to $10 per bushel, said LaVanway, who has been in the agriculture business for 30 years.

"I think a lot of people are going to be shocked at how important agriculture is" to the economy, said LaVanway, who advocates for a regional food system in which products are grown and sold locally.

A relief bill has been passed in the Michigan House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate before its June 14 summer break.

The bill would provide loans of up to $400,000 for farmers and between $800,000 and $1 million for processors, at 1 percent interest. The cost to the state would be $15 million.

Looking to the sunny side, LaVanway said this year's losses could be "a blessing in disguise" that will force people to realize how important agriculture is to Michigan.

Source: www.heraldpalladium.com

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