Washtenaw County apple orchards struggling to survive this year's crop devastation
Each fall, thousands of people visit the Wasem Fruit Farm in Milan to eat freshly baked doughnuts, pick apples and tour 115 acres of Michigan farmland.
But this year, there is one thing missing: crops.
Wasem is one of hundreds of farms affected by the state’s crop devastation — spurred by 80-degree temperatures in March followed by several deep freezes in April. A drought this summer only worsened the problem.
For decades, Wasem Fruit Farm owners Bruce and Jan Upston have offered “U-Pick” apples and other fruits, cider, jams and donuts. They produce about 8,000 bushels of apples in a normal season.
This year, the farm's apple trees —25 different varieties on 35-acres — are bare. They also lost pears, tart cherries, peaches and some raspberries.
“Right now, there should be several bushels of apples on each tree,” Bruce Upston said. “A tree is lucky to even have one. I’m pretty sure we have less than a bushel out of this whole orchard.”
The problem is widespread: Michigan only will produce about 3 million bushels of apples this year, compared to the 20 to 23 million produced during a normal season, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
In June, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a disaster aid bill approving low-interest loans for the state’s hardest-hit farmers. The Michigan Apple Committee is waiting for appropriations.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture had classified all counties in Michigan "primary natural disaster areas because of drought and excessive heat conditions that began in March."
“This is the worst natural disaster to strike Michigan’s agricultural industry in more than 50 years,” Snyder said in a statement.
To survive the season, local orchards are cutting hours, planting different crops, ordering apples from other farms and offering different entertainment.
The Upstons are considering replacing cider with hot chocolate and U-Pick apples with pumpkins. Jan is making more jams and other baked goods. They’ve toyed with the idea of bringing in local entertainers or offering face painting and pumpkin carving.
For now, Wasem plans to be open Friday through Sunday in early September, and then possibly Tuesday through Sunday starting in late September. In normal years, the farm is open seven days a week.
“We planted some Indian corn and sunflowers and some extra pumpkins,” Upston said. “All of which have not done as well as we expected because of the drought. We just hope that people will hang with us and be here and purchase whatever they might.”
Ordering apples other farms, he said, really isn't an option at Wasem.
“I’ve talked to people in Grand Rapids and Ohio. People have talked about ordering from Pennsylvania,” he said. “It makes it a lot more expensive because then you’ve got the shipping.”
Wiard’s Orchards in Ypsilanti Township is more fortunate: the farm has been able to “pull connections” with other Michigan growers to purchase apples, said special events coordinator Rose Timbers.
“We will combine them with what we already have and we will sell Michigan apples,” Timbers said. “We won’t have U-Pick, though.”
Richard Koziski of the Dexter Cider Mill said he's ordering apples from northern Michigan. The cider mill opened last week.
"I don't expect much variety and I expect extremely high prices," he said. "But we're not trying to pass the prices onto the consumer because we can't do that. We've been in business for over 125 years."
At Lutz family orchard, located just southwest of Saline, owner John Broesamle said he hardly has any apples on his 12-acre orchard and doesn’t plan to order any. He said conditions haven’t been this bad at the family farm since 1945.
“I have no income from the orchard at all this year,” he said. “I am taking a loss on it this year, there’s no question.”
He said people still can come out and tour the farm, which also has livestock, other crops and a dairy operation.
Despite these historic losses, there is a common sentiment among growers: this year’s crop devastation was out of their hands and the growing conditions eventually will improve.
“We will get through this,” Broesamle said. “This orchard and farm did not become a fifth generation operation by not being able to survive a few bad years and storms here in Michigan. You have to be able to make due with what you have.”
"(Dexter Cider Mill) kind of weathers these things. Hopefully, this doesn't go on for too long," Koziski said.
Upston added: “We just have to make the best of the situation; it’s a situation we didn’t have control over and life goes on."