Blueberries growers’ last hopePublished 6:09pm Wednesday, May 23, 2012
WATERVLIET — Blueberries represent the last hope for battered Berrien County fruit growers.
Mark Longstroth, Michigan State University Extension small fruit educator, said the warm winter delivered “two weeks of June in March, with temperatures in the 80s in the daytime and 60 degrees at night. For those of us who lived through it, it was really amazing. A different species of fruit bloomed every day — apricots, Japanese plums, peaches, sweet cherries, tart cherries. We all knew we were in trouble.”
Significant freezes followed on April 6-7, 12 and 27. “That Friday was the broom that swept clean around here. The only people who have anything are those with a little bit of fruit on top of the best hills. Apples, cherries, peaches, grapes have all been affected. Grapes are showing some regrowth, so we might have a quarter of a crop. Blueberries are extremely tough and come out late, so we’re guessing we have about an 80 percent crop. It’s going to have a long-term impact, not only to the growers here, but associated industries, such as processors and packers. An awful lot of Berrien County are direct marketers who sell fruit to the public. Where are they going to get apples to make cider?”
Statewide, Farm Bureau estimates $250 million lost of a $350 million industry.
“That’s only farmgate sales,” Longstroth said. “That’s not repercussions in other industries.”
Millburg packer Barry Winkel receives fruit from 50 to 60 growers, some outside Michigan, and can store about half a million bushels.
“Agriculture’s a big gamble,” Winkel, 63, said.
Agriculture makes up 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet feeds 310 million people daily.
“One of our problems,” Winkel said, “is our banks consolidated. We cannot walk in where the president knew my father and grandfather and get a loan. They forgot how trustworthy the local agriculture community has been. An operation our size, we have very little recourse to generate any income to begin to cover the fixed overhead. Hence, we layed off most of our workforce, which we’ve never had to do. We cut repair and upkeep with the goal of not spending any money.”
Winkel tallied a long list of collateral businesses hit by those decisions, such as $6,000 to $30,000 spent annually with an asphalt company, $130,000 with a chemical company to delay apple ripening, lumber companies, electricians, hardware stores in Watervliet and Coloma, a South Haven orchard supplier and big box stores such as Lowe’s, Menards and Home Depot, the company in South Bend, Ind., which keeps refrigeration running and even office supplies.
“It’s amazing how much paper we use in a paperless society,” Winkel said. “Some of the biggest ones supply cardboard and plastic bags. Pallets out of Kalamazoo, paper towels out of Benton Harbor. Donations to service clubs and schools, zip.”
If Michigan produces 21 million bushels of apples, “that’s 21,000 truckloads that aren’t going to get loaded,” he said. “Without migrant labor, it’s going to affect headcount and school budgets. Fred (Upton) might be able to do us more help if he could get us free passes to the shrink.”
Berrien County Commissioner Jon Hinkelman, who hosted the gathering of more than 50 fellow growers attended by the congressman and state Agriculture Director Keith Creagh, points out a green tuft atop a sycamore tree in his yard off M-140.
“It’s the only broad-leafed tree susceptible to frost, so the cold air mass was 65 feet deep here,” Hinkelman said.