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Congressmen witness ‘historic’ devastation work to include risk management help in next Farm Bill.

May 29, 2012

8 Min Read

By Jeremy Nagel

Had it not been so overwhelmingly heartbreaking it might have almost passed for humorous. After the first few stops on a tour of his weather-ravaged apple and cherry orchards last week, Berrien County fruit grower Rodney Winkel posed the same question to his guests, which included several local fruit farmers and a member of Congress: "Where to next?"

The answer was the same every time: "It doesn't really matter," Winkel said with an out-of-place chuckle. "No matter where we go, there's nothing to see—there's really nothing out there—not a peach, not a cherry, not an apple."

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The degree to which western Michigan orchards have been wrecked this spring has most people in and near the agriculture industry talking in extremes, but even words like "disaster," "catastrophic," "devastated" and "decimated" seem inadequate after witnessing the situation firsthand. That was the intent of the farmers and tour organizers who hosted a foursome of congressmen throughout western Michigan this week in Leelanau, Berrien and Kent counties, where fruit cultivation is as much a part of the local culture as the Lake Michigan shoreline itself.

Southwest

"This was truly historic. It'll take a decade to overcome this," said Jon Hinkelman, who grows hundreds of acres of juice grapes for Welch's near Watervliet. "Last year we had our third largest crop ever, with an average of 150 clusters per vine. This year we'll be lucky to get 30.

"It won't be economical to harvest," he said, noting that it's the first year he's questioning the value of even attempting it. "Each operation will have to decide what they'll go after."

Listening carefully and clearly upset by what he was - and wasn't - seeing, Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) pledged his support to the dozen or so farmers in earshot.

"I've supported every farm bill in my tenure," he said, emphasizing that he'll urge Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and her Senate Agriculture Committee to offer specialty crop growers better risk management options in their newly proposed farm bill. Upton added that he'll also back a federal disaster declaration that would make low-interest "bridge" loans available to growers, enabling them to limp through what everyone agrees is the worst outlook for Michigan fruit crops since 1945.

Northwest

Twenty minutes outside Traverse City, Jeff Send's cherry orchards weren't spared from Mother Nature's rage just because a horticultural research facility is right across the road. Wet, heavy snow broke thousands of branches in late winter. Then two weeks of summerlike temperatures in March tricked everything into budding four to six weeks ahead of schedule. A brutal April inflicted more than twice as many damaging frosts and freezes than normal. Water-gorged buds were frozen dead, making the trees themselves vulnerable to bacterial canker.

"I call this Death Valley now," Send said to a tour group Tuesday afternoon about a low-lying orchard so devastated last month that he's likely to pull up several rows of young trees that probably won't survive. The group included dozens of area growers, MSU horticulture experts and U.S. Reps. Dave Camp (R-Midland) and Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls). They returned to the research station for a roundtable discussion after the tour of Send's orchard found not a single viable cherry.

"What would you do if you lost 80, 85, 90, 95 or 100 percent of your family's income for a year?" said Ben LaCross in opening the post-tour discussion. His orchards in nearby Cedar also suffered "complete devastation," as have those of the scores of cherry growers filling every chair and standing two rows deep at the back of the room.

"The next 15 months will be the worst economic times cherry growers will have ever known," said Suttons Bay grower Don Gregory.

Both congressmen pledged their support for the pending disaster declaration, and listened to farmers' pleas for better risk management options for specialty crops, such as crop insurance, to be incorporated into the next farm bill. Both Camp and Benishek were in attendance because a reapportionment of their districts later this year will transfer several counties in the region from Camp's District 4 to Benishek's District 1.

"I look forward to trying to be as helpful as possible," Camp said, with Benishek adding that they would work with Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) and other agencies for guidance in making well-informed decisions about aid efforts.

West

Hopping out of his pickup truck in a dense orchard of lush-looking appletrees in northeastern Kent County, fourth-generation apple grower Mike Wittenbach announced, "I'm blessed. I'm blessed to have this much fruit."

In his case, "this much fruit" means only a quarter of his usual crop, but that's far more than almost any other apple farmer in the state could say this week.

"We have 225 acres of appletrees, producing 9,000 to 10,000 bins in a normal year," Wittenbach explained. "This year I'm hoping for 2,000 to 2,500."

The group that convened at his orchard Wednesday afternoon included several nearby apple growers, industry officials, a local apple packer and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Kentwood). Only one person in the crowd could claim knowing a living apple grower who experienced a similar crisis in 1945 -- brought on by a similarly brutal spring, but cushioned by the crop and livestock diversification typical of Michigan farms seven decades ago.

Since then farmers have maximized the unique combination of soil, water and climate that makes western Michigan so well-suited for fruit and vegetable cultivation. The 14 Lower Peninsula counties that stretch the length of Lake Michigan have become the state's "Gold Coast," and boast an agricultural diversity unparalleled in the eastern U.S. and second only to California.

"But this is just going to be a devastating year," said Dawn Drake, who manages the apple division of the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association, an MFB affiliate. "It's just rocked the infrastructure to its core."

Fruitless

It's those far-reaching and still unknowable long-term consequences that have everyone involved pondering the proverbial big picture far more than usual. Agriculture's roots run deep in Michigan communities, and its branches extend farther than many everyday consumers realize.

Apple growers fear the survival of the packaging facilities that supply the cardboard boxes in which their fruit is packaged. Preparing to import fruit from the Middle East and Europe, cherry processors foresee struggling with international trade duties, just to stay in business in the heart of Michigan's "Cherry Capital."

They all worry about their products losing valuable shelf space in stores, and losing a seasonable labor force that may or may not come, and may or may not have work to do here. And with that many fewer local children in their communities come fall harvest, the potential affect on local school districts poses yet another unknown.

Back down in Berrien County, grape grower Hinkelman fears for the very landscape. He and other Gold Coast farmers all know peers who have pulled out orchards, plowed down vegetable fields and instead planted corn, which is less risky and easily covered by existing crop insurance options. Hinkelman knows that's an option for him as well, but refuses to consider such self-inflicted heartbreak.

"Fruit cultivation is vital to the identity of all of west Michigan. It's vital that we preserve it," he said. "This land, this soil, it's a gift. You can't grow these crops just anywhere."

Nagel writes for Michigan Farm Bureau

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