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Michigan apple harvest moving toward completion

By
Tim Linden

With an estimated crop size down about 15 percent from the previous year and coming on a bit earlier than expected, it appears the end of the Michigan apple harvest period will occur around Halloween, which is a week to 10 days ahead of schedule.

Michigan Apple Committee Executive Director Diane Smith told The Produce News that the pre-season estimate of 18.25 million cartons still appears to be a very accurate number. In 2020, growers harvested more than 22 million cartons, but a spring freeze this year is being blamed for the reduction in volume. “At this point, we have no update on that number but as the varieties are being harvested, the estimates are spot on,” she said.

Michigan growers market more than a dozen different varieties with Galas being their top variety in terms of volume. Fujis and Honeycrisps are also very popular. Smith said the EverCrisp variety is the up and comer as it was first planted about a decade ago and volume is increasing each season.

“It’s a newer variety that came out of the Midwest apple development program (officially the Midwest Apple Improvement Association),” she said. “It’s a phenomenal apple that is a cross between a Honeycrisp and a Fuji. We saw a significant increase in volume last year and expect even more volume this year.”

October and November are the peak months of the sales season for marketing the crop but Michigan shippers stretch the season to as close to year-round as they can. Smith said the new crop begins to be harvested and marketed in August with the previous year’s crop typically still being sold into July. “We usually do not have any carryover,” she said, noting that the 2020 crop was sold out in July. With a smaller 2021 crop on the trees, Smith said the end of the season may come in June 2022 rather than July.

As the largest apple producer in the Midwest, Michigan sells its apples to about 30 states, mostly in the surrounding region, but the apples are shipped as far west as Texas and there are significant sales throughout the Southeast, including Florida. “There are a lot of snowbirds from Michigan that go to Florida for the winter,” she said in explaining their popularity.

But the upper Midwest is where grower-shippers have their best story to tell. “We are able to market our production with a local flair to any state touching Michigan,” she said, noting that those states do not have voluminous apple production.

Michigan is also a member of the U.S. Apple Export Council, which represents all the states with significant apple production other than Washington. The council utilizes the USDA’s Market Access Program to secure funds for international market promotions.

Within the domestic market, Smith said the Michigan Apple Committee employs two account managers who work individually with retailers to set up merchandising programs. “We don’t have one program or promotion that fits everyone,” she said. “We work with each retailer individually to establish a program that fits their needs.”

She added that the Michigan apple industry has greatly broadened its use of social media to connect directly with consumers and continues to expand that effort.

The committee staff and the growers it represents were very much looking forward to the Produce Marketing Association convention after traversing a year of shutdown. “It’s a big loss for us,” said Smith. “We use the convention top connect not only with domestic buyers but also the international community that has a big presence at PMA. It is always a great opportunity to catch up with customers.”

She added that not only has the PMA show cancelled for the past two years, but so have the many individual retailer shows that are held. “It definitely presents a challenge,” she said. “There are a lot of retailers that are still not taking in-person meetings.”

However, Smith did note that there has been a positive with the emergence of on-line connections. “Instead of meeting retailers just once a year, we now have the opportunity to have two to three meetings during the year.”

Taking an overview look at the Michigan apple industry, Smith said acreage appears to be holding steady. “We are about due for another tree survey,” she said. “I don’t think we have gained acreage, but growers are moving toward high-density plantings. Some growers are planting as many as 2,000 trees per acre. So, we are expecting an increase in production over time.”

This past year has been a challenge for Michigan growers. “Every state had different regulations with Michigan being stricter than most,” Smith stated. “But our growers were receptive to that. They wanted to keep their workers safe. That was the most important thing to do.”

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