Opinion: Weathering The Storms Of 2012

Brian Sparks

If there’s one thing I came to realize while putting this issue together, it’s that fruit growers are quite a resilient bunch by nature. Think of it this way: if you were to tell someone in almost any other profession that they were likely going to have no income for an entire year, just imagine what their reaction would be. And yet, growers in several locations across the country are facing this exact prospect in 2012. Chaotic weather patterns, from the spring freezes in the East and Midwest, to hail storms in California in March, have led to much uncertainty over where this year’s crop will end up.

Despite this outlook, many growers we’ve talked to the past couple months are not only carrying on, they are looking ahead to 2013 and what they need to do to make it a year of recovery. In some cases, they are also factoring in the needs of the entire fruit industry as it moves forward.

Forging Ahead

One example of this is the team behind DBR Conveyor Concepts of Conklin, MI, which is developing a vacuum-assist harvesting system for apples. (Read more about their latest efforts by clicking here.) This was supposed to be the year that, after a winter of making adjustments and modifications to the system, in-the-field evaluations would be taking place in Michigan and elsewhere. This should still be the case in Washington and Pennsylvania, but when we talked to Phil Brown and Mike Rasch, two of the three partners behind DBR (the other being Chuck Dietrich), they were concerned that this year’s likely reduced apple crop in Michigan could make it difficult to get a full sense of the machine’s capabilities.

This won’t stop the evaluation, however. Rasch says they will be diligent in seeking out areas where there is enough of a crop to provide an accurate sense of the system’s efficiency. In addition, they will be counting on the data coming out of Washington, in particular, where the machine will be trialed in a wide range of orchard systems, varieties, and terrains.

Some of the researchers responsible for evaluating the DBR unit have noted that it has the potential to revolutionize the apple industry. In other words, they couldn’t let one year of bad weather stop them.

Be Prepared

Another example of how fruit growers continue to forge ahead, even in challenging times, is in this month’s cover story. Sidney Kuhn, general manager of Kuhn Orchards in Cashtown, PA, has taken a number of steps to make sure her family’s farm is able to build a profitable future. Thanks to feedback from customers at their farmers market stands in Northern Virginia, they’ve diversified their crop offerings quite a bit in the last few years. Not only has this led to new sources of income, but in a year like 2012, it could also mean being able to offer their customers new options at a time when some of their preferred crops may face a down year.

On the farm, Kuhn has also invested in a new high tunnel, not just to extend their season, but to protect their berry plants from the elements. With weather a question mark year after year, more and more growers are taking the same approach as Kuhn and looking into high tunnels or other protective structures.

Looking Ahead

So what happens if you are a grower in an area that has experienced heavy crop loss thanks to this year’s weather patterns. First and foremost, our thoughts are with you as you battle through this difficult challenge. But as you already know, having little or no crop doesn’t mean you are done working for the year.

If you’ve read other articles on the effects of 2012’s weather on this site, you know that tree fruit researchers offer several suggestions on how to maintain at least some crop, and how to manage your trees to ensure a good crop the following year. In some cases, there are also suggestions on how you can actually save money this year by potentially cutting back on extra chemical applications.

Finally, for those of you not affected by this year’s weather, our “Tree Fruit” columnist, Jim McFerson, offers this reminder: “Next year, Michigan could be back to full production, while growers in Washington, or wherever, could face their own disaster.” In other words, anyone can experience a down year. The key is to remain resilient.

But you already know that, right?

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