Archived Story

Year in review: Farmers discover themselves fruitless

Published 4:31pm Monday, December 24, 2012

LANSING — One thing Michigan Farm Bureau can say about 2012: Michigan’s second-largest industry didn’t skimp on headline material. The state’s farm and food sector weathered more strife this year than even cranky Mother Nature could dish out.

2012’s agricultural obstacle course spelled ruin for some of Michigan’s most distinctive crops, and as the state’s farmers soldier into the new year, most would look back over the past 12 months and just say they’re glad it’s over.

When mid-March felt like mid-August, you could sense the tension among Lower Peninsula fruit farmers. From Niles to Mackinaw City, Michigan’s fruit growers held their breath as their trees and vines stirred too early from an already short and fitful winter slumber. Tricked out into the open as much as six weeks earlier than normal, fruit buds burst forth and — engorged with water at their most vulnerable stage of development — froze solid and died by the millions as one freeze after another, from late March through April, decimated them wholesale.

Even old-timers were at a loss for words or an equivalent disaster to compare it to. In 2002, farmers lost the cherries. In 1945, most farms could lean on other commodities to see them through. But in 2012, the depth and breadth of the losses were unprecedented.

By early April, the writing was already on the wall for cherry growers, whose orchards took their first big hit in late March. Each of the 10 to 20 freezes that followed took out more and more until they were nearly all destroyed.

April also killed off most juice grapes, apples, peaches and other tree fruits. By early May, cautious optimism had become dread and desperation as the reality set in that most would be tending fruitless orchards through the rest of the year. Estimated losses topped $220 million.

Lawmakers and regulators from Lansing and Washington toured barren orchards, and disaster-relief measures were soon under way. Farmers, handlers and processors have until March 31 to apply for funds from Michigan’s Agriculture Loan Origination Program, a low-interest loan package that sped through the legislature and was signed into law June 26.

Seeded with $15 million in state funds to cover administrative fees, the program leverages up to $300 million from private-sector lenders who were eager help beleaguered fruit growers through a year that promised little or no income.

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