Heard it through the grape vine: Fruit Belt has bounce-back year for most crops

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

There were no grapes of wrath in 2016.

In fact, a Michigan State University Extension educator said grapes produced a decent crop for Southwest Michigan farmers this year.

Mark Longstroth, a fruit educator with Michigan State University who works out of the MSU Extension Paw Paw post, said grapes in general did really well, along with peaches and blueberries.

“Grapes had a huge crop and they were looking really good and then it rained in September and August and we were fearful we wouldn’t be able to make sugar,” Longstroth said. “But there wasn’t a freeze until the winter. It was mostly cool and rainy in the fall, which kept things going.”

While juice grapes did really well in the region, wine grapes were still recovering from two harsh winters. But that doesn’t mean Longstroth has heard any complaints from vintners.

“It was problematic with all the late rain,” he said. “But the quality of the harvest was pretty good. The wineries were able to restock their shelves. Some of the wine coming out of this year will be really nice. We got a lot of it, that’s for sure.”

Feeling the blues

The only trouble for blueberry farmers in 2016 was the wholesale price went down because there were a lot of blueberries produced elsewhere. Normally, Michigan is one of top blueberry producers in the United States.

Like grapes, blueberries are still trying to overcome the previous two winters. Longstroth said both the older and younger canes were killed off in the process. Because of the low crops from years before, they pruned.

“We had a very low crop last year, but eventually we got a full crop this year,” Longstroth said. “Michigan used to be No. 1 in blueberries for decades. But the last two years, because of low crops, (the state of) Washington has had more.”

Longstroth said sweet cherries were hurt by the freeze in early April and apples were disappointing.

That came as a surprise to many as a statewide crop estimate released in August estimated Michigan farmers would harvest about 31 million bushels of apples this fall. Instead it remained close to previous years.

However, he predicts there will more cherries and apples for the 2017 harvest.

“Simply because they will have stored up energy for next year, most of our fruit plants make their buds for next spring,” Longstroth said. “That leaves us with the potential for a really heavy bloom.”

Strawberries have their day

Rene Gelder began to see her strawberries start to blossom in April, which meant they would have to start picking by mid-May. However, when May came around, there was another full surge of blossoms at her Benton Township farm.

The strawberry season normally lasts four weeks, accounting for most of June. Because of those extra two weeks, there was an abundance of strawberries flooding the Southwest Michigan market.

Michigan produced temperatures 10 degrees warmer than the average mark for the last two weeks in May, according to information collected from the National Weather Service’s Benton Harbor station. This warm weather would go on to increase the number of blossoms across the state and produced fruit at an accelerated rate.

This was in stark contrast to previous years where late frost has destroyed many crops in late spring and early summer.

Veggies and pricing

Ron Goldy, a senior MSU extension educator, said vegetables seemed to produce really well in the region this year.

With no significant losses around Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, Goldy said the only negative came with the pricing.

“Usually, there’s some point during the season when prices are high and growers can make some money,” Goldy said. “The prices weren’t good, but usually there’s supply at other places. It’s normally typical for Michigan to take over other markets in September, but other people had supplies up at the same time.”

He said there’s no way to determine a trend for 2017 when it comes to vegetables because they are planted every year and aren’t affected by the perennial process.

“It wasn’t a good year, but it wasn’t bad year,” Goldy said. “Vegetables are not perennial crops so they don’t hold storage from year to year.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 31, 2016)

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