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Michigan apple growers scramble to harvest potential record-setting crop

Rob Steffens palms a Fuji apple nearly the size of a softball in the middle of his 280-acre apple orchard near Sparta in Kent County’s “fruit ridge.”

“This block here is really going to pick heavy this year,” Steffens says, smiling at a row of stubby trees. The branches are heavy with near ripe fruit.

“This is just gorgeous size fruit on here,” he said. “It’s going to be a real shame if we can’t get this crop harvested and in the barn.”

Steffens is just one of many apple growers scrambling to take care of what’s potentially the biggest crop in Michigan’s history.

Randy Beaudry is a post-harvest physiologist. He’s been with Michigan State University for about 24 years.

“Some of the best color and best, what we call 'pack out,' that I’ve experienced. I’ve never seen the trees so loaded with fruit at that relatively high quality,” Beaudry said.

"They're growing just buckets of fruit out there," Beaudry said.

Last year’s early summer weather and hard freeze damaged huge swaths of Michigan’s fruit crop. Only 2.7 million bushels were harvested. This year, Beaudry says, it could be a record 30 million bushels.  

But growers still face some challenges as they work to harvest the bumper crop.

Beaudry says Michigan growers will need to lure retailers and vendors back after last year. Space to store the apples through the winter is limited, and will likely cost more. And the abundant apple supply could push down prices.

Steffens’ immediate concern is finding enough workers to pick the apples. He’s also worried about the weather.

“If the weather turns bad and we get a few days of rain, this thing could blow up here in about 3, 4 weeks or so. I’m really afraid that could happen. That’s why we’re pushing the people we have (for workers). We just got to get it in the barn. If we can get it in the barn, we can deal with the other stuff later,” Steffens said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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