1:17am

Tue October 22, 2013
Business

Michigan Apple Harvest Recovers, But Pickers Are Scarce

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 8:29 am

One year ago the Michigan apple harvest, hurt by a late winter warm-up and a spring freeze, was almost nonexistent at 3 million bushels. This fall, the crop is projected to yield a record-setting 30 million bushels, but now there's concern that not enough pickers will be in the orchards.

In west Michigan, there's an apple-growing region called The Ridge, where they will be talking for years down the road about that bleak 2012 apple calendar. At the time, grower Phil Schwallier said it was so bad they gave individual names to each apple they found, starting with Alice.

"We got up to Rachel. We found, in other words, about 20 apples," he said.

Fast forward a year and Schwallier says he is seeing a lot of great apples. "Blemish-free, large, nice red color, and firm," he says. "And they're sticking on the trees so far."

When the apples are ready and ripe, getting them picked could be a problem. Even though there's more money on the trees, not enough seasonal workers have shown up. But so far, the harvest is reported to be on track.

One solution to the problem of not enough workers is an apple-picking machine, like the one being tested on a farm called Riveridge Produce. It looks like something that could have come from the sketchpad of Dr. Seuss.

A platform moves between the rows of trees with two pickers riding on each side. They place the fruit into small buckets that connect by vacuum hoses to a bin below. The machine is a prototype of a Vacuum Apple Harvester. It would cost about $150,000, but when the harvest numbers are up, equipment can start looking good.

"I think there's some real potential for what we're seeing here," says Justin Finkler, who works for Riveridge Produce. "The ability to keep people off of ladders [and] the option to pick at night, that's something that's never been done before. To run this thing 24/7 is a huge advantage."

Despite the advantage, technology or not, a single apple must still be picked, in one precise motion, by one person.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Apple producers in Michigan have a reason to smile this fall. The state's orchards are heading towards a possible record-breaking harvest, over 30 million bushels. This is a big and welcome change from the dismal crop a year before, when only three million bushels made it to market. NPR's Noah Adams has the story.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: In west Michigan, there's an apple-growing region called The Ridge, and here, they'll be talking for years down the road about that 2012 apple calendar. In March, it got warm. The buds came out too early. April, one dark night, the killing frost settled in. And then the harvest in September. A year ago, I met a grower named Phil Schwallier, and here's a replay of what he was saying then about the empty trees. It was a local joke. If they did find an apple, they would give it a name.

PHIL SCHWALLIER: When we found our first apple, we gave it Alice. And then we found our second - just like the hurricanes - we gave it Brian and the third one Camille. And we got up to Rachel. We found, in other words, about 20 apples. That's how short they are. There's none out there.

JESSIE MORGAN: OK. Welcome to Schwallier's Country Basket. My name is Jessie.

ADAMS: Jessie Morgan helps out at the Country Basket, just at the edge of the Schwallier's U-Pick orchard. The kids like to come here on school outings. They have cider, a doughnut, a bit of apple talk in the barn.

MORGAN: And do you guys know what season we're in right now? Fall, exactly. What we do is we pick the apples in the fall, and we put them in storage once we're done picking them.

ADAMS: And this fall, if you asked a grower like Phil Schwallier about a record harvest, he'll just smile. But he is, indeed, seeing a lot of great apples.

SCHWALLIER: Blemish-free, large, nice red color and firm. And they're sticking on the trees, so far.

ADAMS: When the apples are ready and ripe, getting them picked, the growers had worried that could be a problem in Michigan - not enough seasonal workers showing up. But so far, the harvest is reported to be on track.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAMS: I go to visit an orchard near Belding, a few miles east of the Ridge. Many of the workers like to have music playing for their pickup trucks. I talk with Carmen Bravo, who's come with her family from Florida. She's standing on a ladder, picking Empire apples that will go to McDonald's for Happy Meal slices. Well, it is a pretty day to be out here, huh?

CARMEN BRAVO: Yes, it's a beautiful day to be working out here. Sometimes, like, early in the morning, sometimes it's wet. Later in the afternoon, it's hot. But we got to keep on going.

ADAMS: As we talk, Carmen Bravo keeps right on picking apples, reaching with both hands. She and her husband work together. They arrived in Michigan on Mike Wittenbach's farm in July. They come every year from Florida, even helping out last fall when the harvest was low. They stay in the farm's migrant camp, just behind the Wittenbach barns - small white houses, a laundry room, a playground.

BRAVO: Yeah, it's a good place to live. Have everything in there what I need for me and my kids and my family.

ADAMS: How many kids?

BRAVO: Three kids.

ADAMS: And they're going to school?

BRAVO: Yes. They're going to school. My oldest is in third grade, and the other two go to day care, preschool.

ADAMS: And do you all go into town much?

BRAVO: Yeah. We go to Grand Rapids. We go to buy our groceries on Sundays. It's our day off, so we go buy groceries, go out to eat as a family, enjoy our Sunday.

ADAMS: Mike Wittenbach, the grower who spends much of his time in his truck moving ladders around, says he tries to give his workers Saturday afternoon off and all day Sunday. He wants to limit the picking to 45, maybe 50 hours a week.

MIKE WITTENBACH: Because they just get tired. We're all human, and that's what we try to do. But if it rains Thursday, Friday and we are behind, we pick Saturday, Sunday. And they understand that, and they're willing.

ADAMS: On a large farm called Riveridge, I watch an apple-picking experimental contraption. This could have come from the sketchpad of Dr. Seuss: a platform that moves between the rows of trees, two pickers ride on each side. They place the fruit into small buckets that connect by vacuum hoses to a bin below.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

ADAMS: It's a prototype of a Vacuum Apple Harvester. It would cost $150,000. When the harvest numbers are up, equipment can start looking good.

JUSTIN FINKLER: I think there's some real potential for what we're seeing here.

ADAMS: Justin Finkler works for Riveridge Produce.

FINKLER: The ability to keep people off of ladders, the ability, the option to pick at night, you know, that's something that's never been done before. To run this thing 24-7, if needed, is a huge advantage.

ADAMS: We'll leave the future behind on the Ridge in west Michigan with this thought: technology or not, a single apple must still be picked, in one precise motion, by one person. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.