Experts estimate record-sized apple crop for Michigan



Experts expect a record-sized apple crop of big, beautiful fruit.

Michigan Apple Committee announced it estimates an apple crop of 31 million bushes, or 1.3 billon pounds, while the Michigan State University Extension predicts the fruit will be high quality.

Half of Michigan’s apple production is on the Fruit Ridge in mainly Kent and Ottawa counties, which is largely fresh production and eaten out of hand.

“It’s not just a big harvest, it should be high quality with all the sun and warmth,” said Amy Irish-Brown, a fruit tree educator with the MSU Extension. “The sun and warmth push the sugar levels up, while cooler nights should bring out the vibrant colors. It’s been a nice year.”

An expected 31 million bushels would be a 7 million bushel increase against 2014. An average apple harvest in Michigan is 22.83 million bushels.

“We’ve been seeing a steady increase in crop size each year,” Michigan Apple Committee Executive Director Diane Smith said. “Growers are indicating that the crop is plentiful and looks beautiful, as well.”

Even this year’s large crop isn’t out of the ordinary, Irish-Brown said.

“In 2013, we had 30 million bushels,” she said. “That was following 2012, when we had a bad crop and the trees were rested and it went gangbusters.”

The 2012 crop largely was depleted because of weather conditions, which Irish-Brown said greatly affects the final numbers. This year, apple growers started earlier in the year than normal and were able to sneak through the frosts.

“It was scary at first,” she said. “It was nice and cool, so we had nice bloom time, lots of time for bees to work and fruit to set.”

Early estimates for the crop were 26-28 million bushels, which is above average. August’s heavy rains helped push the number higher.

Irish-Brown said she doesn’t expect prices to be lower than normal, but the supply should limit any price increases.

Apple prices remain fairly stable, as a large majority of the nation’s apples — 147 million bushels — are grown in Washington, she said, while New York and Michigan are similar in output. When one state’s production lags, another usually makes up for the dearth in the marketplace — Michigan’s apples generally make it to 27 states and 18 countries, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.

“We’re typically behind New York, and this year, we might be ahead, but it all balances out,” Irish-Brown said. “It doesn’t affect supply and demand on a national and global scale.”

The demand for fresh apples is growing, as well, Irish-Brown said, as consumers want more locally grown, fresh produce. She pointed to the 1990s, when cheap juice concentrates flooded the market and even pushed many farmers out of the business — leading to an absence of mid-career farmers.

Today, Irish-Brown said many farmers are in the late or early stages of their careers, making for an exciting time in agriculture. There are more than 800 family apple farms in Michigan.

Michigan’s apple production largely has been consistent, even in the 1990s, but has recently grown larger because of changes in agriculture, Irish-Brown said. The past 25 years have seen a shift from full-size, big apple trees to smaller, more manageable trees — which result in easier pruning, pest management, harvesting and higher production.

“That seems like an oxymoron, how does a little tree get more fruit?” Irish-Brown said. “If you look at total acreage, it’s more efficient. You’re farming sunlight, it’s what produces apples. If it’s an extra lean tree — not a lot of extra structure — they can be extra productive.”

Michigan currently has more than 11.3 million apple trees in the state on 35,500 acres.

The trend of smaller tree size also will lend itself to the future advances in technology on the farm. Some farms are planning for systems to handle robotic harvesters and pruners. Irish-Brown said every apple in Michigan is picked by hand, which has become challenging, as finding labor becomes difficult.

“I never thought I’d see these things in my life,” she said of the robotic harvesters. “Every tree is different, but apparently, engineers are really good at seeing that, and we’ll be there before I expected.”

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