GRAND RAPIDS — According to the USDA 2002 Census of Agriculture, Kent County apple growers played a major role in getting the sale of fruits and nuts to top $25 million that year and were ranked tops in Michigan again — proving that the industry has a solid core.
Apple growers, along with owners of nurseries and greenhouses, were largely responsible for the sales success the county’s agriculture industry had two years ago when the field’s total market value grew by nearly 16 percent from 1997 to $149.7 million.
Sixteen percent over five years, however, may not seem like a windfall when calculated on a yearly basis, but consider that the total market value for agricultural products across Michigan rose by less than 3 percent over those same years.
Phil Schwallier, a district horticultural agent with the agriculture experiment station in Clarksville, told the Business Journal that in recent years apple growers have gotten higher prices for their fruit, partly due to weather conditions.
“In 2002, we had a frost that reduced the state crop quite a bit but didn’t reduce the Kent County crop nearly as much.
“In that frost, some growers had full crops and other growers, even within Kent County, had only 5 percent of a crop. It was quite a variable,” he said.
Schwallier added that county growers who suffered frost damage received federal disaster relief that year, a year in which those payments rose by 124 percent from 1997 to nearly $4 million. And with the apple supply down two years ago, growers with a full crop then got better prices for their products.
So we had a real nice price that year,” said Schwallier.
County growers grow most of their apples for the fresh market rather than the processing market.
Fresh provides them with the highest prices, while prices in the applesauce and juice markets are only a third of the fresh market. Weather often determines where a grower sends a crop.
“If the apples get frost marks, those are diverted to processing,” Schwallier said.
“If they get hail damage — as they did this year — then those hail-marked apples are also diverted to processing. So it all depends on the quality of the apple at harvest time,” said Schwallier, whose territory covers 15 counties in West Michigan.
“But Kent County growers tend to grow most of their crops for fresh use and are able to capture the higher price most of the time.”
As for this year’s crop, Schwallier said it’s a mixed bag.
He explained that lots of rain, mixed with plenty of hail that accompanied thunderstorms, left some growers across the state with possibly more weather-damaged apples than ever before.
That fruit is headed to the processing market at a lower-than-hoped-for price and a likely loss for those growers. Schwallier said just a five-minute hailstorm can cost a fruit farmer from $100,000 to $200,000 in potential revenue.
But growers who didn’t suffer hail damage have a corner on the fresh market.
“Prices are good to excellent right now, so we’re expecting a good year for those growers,” he said.
County growers have more than 10,700 acres in apple production and they produce 26 different varieties of the fruit.
Red Delicious is the No. 1 variety grown in the county and in the state.
Macintosh, Ida Reds, and Empire Gala are the other popular varieties grown by Kent County farmers.