By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
Michigan’s apple industry is primed for a big season heading into October.
A statewide crop estimate released in August anticipates Michigan farmers will harvest about 31 million bushels of apples this fall. That figure is considered to be a record for the state and about 7 million more bushels than Michigan produced last year.
Local farmers say the combination of favorable weather and denser planting led to the robust crops.
Chris Lattak, co-owner of Nye’s Apple Barn and Farm Market in St. Joseph, said a lot of things had to go right for Michigan’s expected 30 percent increase in its apple production to occur.
“We just didn’t have anything go wrong. It wasn’t a great pollination period, but it was not bad in any other area,” Lattak said. “The year actually starts the fall before. Last fall we had a timely harvest, where we weren’t picking until it snowed. We didn’t have a hard winter that would cause damage and there was decent rainfall and nice sun.”
As the season goes on, there are variables that come through and knock down a crop’s potential. However, Lattak said with there being less frost in the spring – in comparison to the last two years – there was time for orchards across Southwest Michigan to heal and flourish.
The influx of apples also came in large part due to technological advancement and denser planting of apple trees.
Lattak, who runs the farm with his sister, handles 110 acres. About 25 of those acres are dedicated to apples alone. Lattak said they brought back a farming measure that proved to be unsuccessful in the 1990s. He began planting high-density apples to increase their product outlook.
“I started doing it again three years ago, only this time we used irrigation for the roots,” Lattak said. “I’ve been putting in high-density honeycrisp, but there’s another kind that ripens two weeks earlier.”
High-density apple trees grow only 3 feet apart from one another and have smaller roots that don’t compete for as much soil. The normal apple trees in orchards are spaced 14 to 16 feet apart.
The average apple tree grows taller than high-density apple trees, but they don’t yield as many apples. Lattak said high-density trees can double or triple a farmer’s apple production.
“Your tree population per acre is a lot higher,” Lattak said. “Instead of 40 bushels an acre, you are getting 100 plus an acre. Michigan’s acreage hasn’t increased in large amounts and yet there’s this expected increase in bushels.”
Josh Rick, owner of Flavorland Farms in Baroda, said 110 of its 150 acres are dedicated to apples.
A few of his apple trees were damaged after consecutive harsh winters and tepid spring frost. However, Rick said those trees have come back pretty strong this year.
“I would think the large crops throughout the state can be attributed to the recent plantings that have produced more bushels per acre,” Rick said. “These new plantings have a lot more trees per acre. They’re smaller in size, but larger in quantity.”
July proved to be dry for a lot of crops, but Rick said there was more than enough rain in August to make some big apples.
As a result, Flavorland Farms has seen an uptick in its gala and honeycrisp apples.
In addition, there will be more apples for cider. Luckily, Rick said his farm is in the process of building a cider mill, which they hope to open sometime this winter. With the quantity for apples expected to increase, Rick said he is unsure how it will impact the prices they are paid per bushel.
“So far, our prices are what we have been getting,” Rick said. “But when it gets closer to October we’ll have a better idea of the set asking price. I don’t know what I’m going to get for my apples until they are sold to a consumer.”