Fruit Yields Look Promising, but Processing Industry is Challenged
8/17/2018
Close-up of blueberries on bush

Overall, it looks to be a great year for fruit yields in Michigan and Wisconsin, but that doesn’t always translate to a great year for growers.

The fruit industry is celebrated locally, but there are some challenges, especially for processed fruit, according to Mark Longstroth, who has been a Michigan State University Extension Fruit Educator since 1993. Most domestically produced fruit juices are struggling to compete with cheap, concentrated imports.

“Anybody that grows processing fruit is in a bind because they are not making enough money to justify input costs,” Longstroth says. “That includes juice grapes, cranberries, tart cherries, processing apples and processing blueberries.”

In Wisconsin, the U.S. leader in cranberry production, USDA is forecasting a growth from 5.372 million (100-pound barrels) to 5.5 million barrels. Nationally, the cranberry crop is forecasted at 8.634 million barrels, up from last year’s total of 8.371 million barrels.

Wisconsin apples also look to be plentiful with a forecasted crop of 51.6 million pounds, up from last year’s harvest of 49 million pounds.

Here’s a look at a few prevalent fruit crops:?

Tart Cherries

The tart cherry production for Michigan was estimated by the growers at the Cherry Industry Administrative Board meeting in early July to be 344.5 million pounds, with 254 million pounds coming from Michigan. USDA, in May, had estimated higher at 352.7 million pounds nationally and 264 million pounds from Michigan. 

Growers are saying the crop, although abundant, is less than predicted because of smaller fruit size.

The industry continues to be challenged and some question the future of the industry as imports – largely from Turkey – now displace more than half of the juice market.

The tart cherry industry is also one of the few that has a marketing order that restricts domestic production to try and achieve a balance between supply and demand. 

For this year, the board decided on a 31% restriction, which means 107 million pounds of tart cherries will need to be destroyed on the ground, diverted at the plant or put into storage to be used for only certain uses. Those uses include establishing new markets, exports, displacement of imports and new products.

To make matters worse, since 2010, Michigan has been battling Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD), a destructive fly that has an appetite for soft-fleshed, thin-skinned fruit, meaning it favors berries, grapes and cherries. Longstroth says they’re not as big of an issue for apples or peaches, but their swath of destruction is great for the other fruits. 

“It’s wiped out small raspberry growers because you have to spray every week, and if it rains, you have to reapply,” Longstroth says. “For blueberries, spraying costs $350 extra an acre. It’s similar for other crops. And now we’re seeing a need for sprays every five or six days, and stretching the spray is not very forgiving.”

Beck, who has about five acres of blueberries, has stopped harvesting because of SWD pressure. “I now run a U-pick operation for blueberries,” he says.

Blueberries

However, imports of fresh blueberries are displacing the July-September season that Michigan growers traditionally dominated. After blueberries were touted as a superfood for their antioxidants, there was a rapid expansion of the domestic industry, primarily from Florida and Southern California. “Now, fresh blueberries come from all over the world,” Longstroth says, citing British Columbia, Mexico, Chili, Argentina and Peru as big blueberry importers. “And, you can get them every week of the year with very little change in price.”

One opportunity out of this downward spiral is to switch to new fresh-pack varieties better suited for today’s consumer. “The problem is it takes 8-12 years to get into production,” Longstroth says.

Another hurdle is Michigan’s smaller yield per acre. Michigan growers average about 5,000 pounds per acre, while the west coast and British Columbia are harvesting about 10,000 pounds per acre – half the cost of production than Michigan.

“Ten years ago, blueberries were a hot commodity, and it costed about $20,000 an acre to buy blueberries,” Longstroth says. “Today, if it’s an old field, it’s probably only worth the price of the land.” 
Peaches

Peaches are struggling some, too. “Peach acreage is declining, as it’s getting harder to compete at the local market with southern fresh peaches coming in during our season,” says Longstroth, who notes that the southern peaches are on the tree a month longer and therefore produce a larger peach by harvesttime in Michigan.
Grapes

Imports are cutting into domestic grape juice markets as growers from around the world are concentrating their product and shipping it into the U.S.
Welches, who processes Concord and Niagara, bought contracts back from growers after it predicted overproduction, Longstroth says.

“Some growers have considered switching to wine grapes, but the best sites for growing wine grapes are where peaches and sweet cherries are being grown,” he says. “Ground where apples, juice grapes and tart cherries are being grown are not usually suited for wine grape vineyards.”

Strawberries

The hot weather created a short season for strawberries, which ripened all at once. “With that heat, they quit growing and started ripening,” Longstroth says. “Michigan produces some high-flavored fruit, but Michigan cannot beat California in berry size. The American consumer is spoiled because fruit can be sourced from anywhere in the world and there are virtually no seasonal fruits any more. Unfortunately, people buy with eyes unless they are an educated consumer.”



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