Michigan Apple Orchards Blossom After A Devastating Year : The Salt The apple trees are heading for full blossom in Michigan after a disastrous 2012 crop, when only 15 percent of the apples survived. But this year's harvest is expected to rebound.

Michigan Apple Orchards Blossom After A Devastating Year

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If you live in the Midwest, you know how chilly it's been. I was visiting Ohio over the weekend and was all bundled up. I mean, it's May. In Michigan, they were under a freeze warning on Sunday night. And this is not just uncomfortable, but it's downright scary if you're an apple grower and your trees are just coming into bloom. That's the focus of today's Bottom Line in Business.

Last year, almost the entire Michigan apple crop was lost due to 80-degree days in March, followed by freezing nights in April. This year, the apples are back, but as always, everything depends on the weather. Here's NPR's Noah Adams.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: We have come to a region known as The Ridge. It's in the west-central part of the state, close to Lake Michigan. It's a series of ridges and rolling valleys. We'll go meet a couple of apple growers and a master welder, get to hear a wind machine whirling, and even take time for breakfast. First, though, a recollection: late April last year, the morning of the 2012 killing frost. Case DeYoung and his agribusiness colleague Tim Boles were riding to work together in a truck. They stopped at a high point. They knew it was bad when they saw the helicopters, hoping to push down the warm air layer.

CASE DEYOUNG: And you've got this bright, red ball of a sun coming up just at dawn - 6:30, quarter to seven.

TIM BOLES: Some of the farmers from the area had gone down south and brought back smudge pots to generate some warm air and smoke, to try and help warm the trees.

DEYOUNG: And then here's these black helicopters sitting here, hovering.

BOLES: So you had the sound of the helicopters, thump-thump-thump, and the smoke and the rising sun. And Case and I both remarked that it was like "Apocalypse Now."

SUANNE SHOEMAKER: I didn't only pick maybe 1 percent of the crop here at our farm for apples.

ADAMS: One percent: That's how the 2012 harvest eventually turned out for Suanne Shoemaker. Her family's farm on Six Mile Road is Ed Dunneback & Girls. A brother had been killed in Vietnam in 1971. The sign got changed. Suanne helps raise 30 acres of apples.

And how does it look this year?

SHOEMAKER: It looks great, looks great. We're all excited. All the growers are. Everybody is happy around here this year. So...


ADAMS: To the north, on Eight Mile Road, Joe Rasch was out this past week with a tractor and a small crew, expanding his orchard, putting in Honeycrisp and Galas. Over the winter, with no apples to ship, he had a chance for traveling.

JOE RASCH: I went. My - I had two daughters in Chile. My son and I, we went to Northern Patagonia for three weeks, which is a very beautiful, undeveloped area.


ADAMS: A welding shop, a big one, it's almost a factory on The Ridge. An apple-grower, not so busy, sitting around over coffee, could sketch out something on a napkin, something mechanically useful, and take it to Phil Brown.

PHIL BROWN: This past year, they actually had money from the year before, and didn't spend as much for the spray, or almost nothing for picking. So our fall and winter, later on, was very good for us.


ADAMS: And here's a wind machine starting up. It's a test run. Our microphone is right under it.


ADAMS: It's a single-propeller blade, on a steel tower 35-feet high. When the cold comes, the blade pushes the warmer air closer to the ground. It's like the helicopter - $30,000. The Superior Wind Machine Company sold 130 of these last year on The Ridge.


ADAMS: During the apple season, every Wednesday morning, the growers show up at a local restaurant. They come at 7 A.M. for a free breakfast. It's paid for by one of the farm chemical companies, but they really need the briefing by Amy Irish-Brown. She's an extension educator from Michigan State University.


AMY IRISH-BROWN: Good Morning.


IRISH-BROWN: Thank you. My mom voice didn't even work.

ADAMS: Amy Irish-Brown puts up a PowerPoint and talks about spores and beetles and aphids, and especially about the weather.

IRISH-BROWN: I see a lot of you are planting trees, and it's surprising how, unless there's, you know, really, really low wet spot, it's surprising how dry it is. And that's partly because we haven't had any rain, but also because relative humidity has been extremely low. That's what's drying things out fairly quickly. A month ago, we had all this rain, we were swimming it in it. And now it's a little...

ADAMS: Amy Irish-Brown left her apple-growers that morning with a caution about the freeze coming on the night of Mother's Day. As it turned out, there was frost on The Ridge, just at full bloom time. But Amy sent us an email update saying: We should be OK. Perhaps a little damage, but still have the potential for a full apple crop.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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