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Michigan Apple Orchards Blossom After A Devastating Year

May 14, 2013
Originally published on May 14, 2013 8:20 pm

Last year, almost the entire Michigan apple crop was lost because of 80-degree days in March and then some freezing April nights. This year, the apples are back, but everything always depends on the weather. The state was under a freeze warning Sunday night — a scary prospect if you're an apple grower and your trees have just come into bloom.

Tim Boles and his agribusiness colleague Case DeYoung were driving to work one morning in late April 2012 after a killing frost had hit the apple orchards in The Ridge, a region of ridges and rolling valleys in the west-central part of the state close to Lake Michigan. They stopped at a high point and knew things were bad when they saw the helicopters hovering, hoping to push down a warmer layer of air.

"Some of the farmers from the area had gone down south and brought back smudge pots to generate some warm air and smoke to try and help warm the trees," Boles says. "So you had the sound of the helicopters — thump, thump, thump — and the smoke and the rising sun, and Case and I both remarked that it was like Apocalypse Now."

Suanne Shoemaker and her family's farm on Six Mile Road could only harvest 1 percent of their 30 acres of apples in 2012. But this year, "It looks great," Shoemaker says. "We're all excited, all the growers are. Everybody's happy around here this year."

Every Wednesday morning during apple season, growers show up at a local restaurant at 7 a.m. for a free breakfast (paid for by one of the farm chemical companies) and a briefing from Amy Irish-Brown, an extension educator from Michigan State University. She talks about spores, beetles, aphids and especially the weather.

"It's surprising how dry it is, and that's partly because we haven't had any rain but also because relative humidity has been extremely low. That's what's drying things out fairly quickly," she says. She wants the growers to keep this in mind as they're planting new trees. And she leaves them with a caution about the freeze coming on the night of Mother's Day.

As it turned out, there was frost on The Ridge — just at full bloom time. But, in an email, Irish-Brown says, "We should be OK. Perhaps a little damage but still have the potential for a full apple crop."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If you live in the Midwest, you know how chilly it's been. I was visiting Ohio over the weekend and was all bundled up. I mean, it's May. In Michigan, they were under a freeze warning on Sunday night. And this is not just uncomfortable, but it's downright scary if you're an apple grower and your trees are just coming into bloom. That's the focus of today's Bottom Line in Business.

Last year, almost the entire Michigan apple crop was lost due to 80-degree days in March, followed by freezing nights in April. This year, the apples are back, but as always, everything depends on the weather. Here's NPR's Noah Adams.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: We have come to a region known as The Ridge. It's in the west-central part of the state, close to Lake Michigan. It's a series of ridges and rolling valleys. We'll go meet a couple of apple growers and a master welder, get to hear a wind machine whirling, and even take time for breakfast. First, though, a recollection: late April last year, the morning of the 2012 killing frost. Case DeYoung and his agribusiness colleague Tim Boles were riding to work together in a truck. They stopped at a high point. They knew it was bad when they saw the helicopters, hoping to push down the warm air layer.

CASE DEYOUNG: And you've got this bright, red ball of a sun coming up just at dawn - 6:30, quarter to seven.

TIM BOLES: Some of the farmers from the area had gone down south and brought back smudge pots to generate some warm air and smoke, to try and help warm the trees.

DEYOUNG: And then here's these black helicopters sitting here, hovering.

BOLES: So you had the sound of the helicopters, thump-thump-thump, and the smoke and the rising sun. And Case and I both remarked that it was like "Apocalypse Now."

SUANNE SHOEMAKER: I didn't only pick maybe 1 percent of the crop here at our farm for apples.

ADAMS: One percent: That's how the 2012 harvest eventually turned out for Suanne Shoemaker. Her family's farm on Six Mile Road is Ed Dunneback & Girls. A brother had been killed in Vietnam in 1971. The sign got changed. Suanne helps raise 30 acres of apples.

And how does it look this year?

SHOEMAKER: It looks great, looks great. We're all excited. All the growers are. Everybody is happy around here this year. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

ADAMS: To the north, on Eight Mile Road, Joe Rasch was out this past week with a tractor and a small crew, expanding his orchard, putting in Honeycrisp and Galas. Over the winter, with no apples to ship, he had a chance for traveling.

JOE RASCH: I went. My - I had two daughters in Chile. My son and I, we went to Northern Patagonia for three weeks, which is a very beautiful, undeveloped area.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ADAMS: A welding shop, a big one, it's almost a factory on The Ridge. An apple-grower, not so busy, sitting around over coffee, could sketch out something on a napkin, something mechanically useful, and take it to Phil Brown.

PHIL BROWN: This past year, they actually had money from the year before, and didn't spend as much for the spray, or almost nothing for picking. So our fall and winter, later on, was very good for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF A WIND MACHINE)

ADAMS: And here's a wind machine starting up. It's a test run. Our microphone is right under it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A WIND MACHINE)

ADAMS: It's a single-propeller blade, on a steel tower 35-feet high. When the cold comes, the blade pushes the warmer air closer to the ground. It's like the helicopter - $30,000. The Superior Wind Machine Company sold 130 of these last year on The Ridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF A WIND MACHINE)

ADAMS: During the apple season, every Wednesday morning, the growers show up at a local restaurant. They come at 7 A.M. for a free breakfast. It's paid for by one of the farm chemical companies, but they really need the briefing by Amy Irish-Brown. She's an extension educator from Michigan State University.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

AMY IRISH-BROWN: Good Morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING A BELL)

IRISH-BROWN: Thank you. My mom voice didn't even work.

ADAMS: Amy Irish-Brown puts up a PowerPoint and talks about spores and beetles and aphids, and especially about the weather.

IRISH-BROWN: I see a lot of you are planting trees, and it's surprising how, unless there's, you know, really, really low wet spot, it's surprising how dry it is. And that's partly because we haven't had any rain, but also because relative humidity has been extremely low. That's what's drying things out fairly quickly. A month ago, we had all this rain, we were swimming it in it. And now it's a little...

ADAMS: Amy Irish-Brown left her apple-growers that morning with a caution about the freeze coming on the night of Mother's Day. As it turned out, there was frost on The Ridge, just at full bloom time. But Amy sent us an email update saying: We should be OK. Perhaps a little damage, but still have the potential for a full apple crop.

Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.