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Michigan’s Apple Growers Hope To Stretch Fruit Freshness For Months To Come

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Fresh Michigan apples. (credit: Sandra McNeil/WWJ)

Fresh Michigan apples. (credit: Sandra McNeil/WWJ)

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JOHN FLESHER, Associated Press
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER, Associated Press

CENTRAL LAKE, Mich. (AP) — This year’s Michigan apple crop is expected to be 10 times as plentiful as last year’s puny output.

While the big bounce-back is welcomed in the nation’s third-largest apple-producing state, the bounty presents its own challenges: How do growers, packers and processors maximize storage to avoid flooding stores with the fruit, thus crashing the market and lowering growers’ profits?

The answer, as it turns out, lies in getting the apples to go to sleep — and stay that way.

Two techniques — one relatively new, the other a play on time-tested refrigeration — are keeping apples fresh and flavorful longer than ever, with some varieties “sleeping” for as many as 9 to 10 months to keep consumers happy until the next harvest.

A fairly recent innovation called 1-methylcyclopropene, or 1-MCP, temporarily stops apples’ ability to respond to their own cues for ripening. They are sealed inside a room where blowing fans spread the 1-MCP compound in a gaseous form, so it can work its way inside the fruit.

Known commercially as “SmartFresh,” it “has been a game-changer for apple storage and is partly responsible for the up-trending consumption of apples in the U.S. over the last 5 to 10 years,” Michigan State University horticulture professor Randy Beaudry said. He is involved in updating a traditional apple refrigeration method known as “controlled-atmosphere storage,” or “CA,” to double the time Honeycrisp apples can be stored.

In a typical year, Michigan’s 9.2 million trees produce 20 million to 23 million bushels, pumping up to $900 million into the economy.

The state’s 2013 harvest is projected to be around 30 million bushels, which roughly equals out to 382 medium-sized apples for every state resident; 12 for every American.

Yet, its 2012 crop was about 90 percent smaller, the biggest apple crop loss since the 1940s, according to the Michigan Apple Committee, a nonprofit funded by the state’s growers. Apple trees bloomed early because of an extraordinary heat wave in March, followed by a series of frosts and freezes that killed most of the blossoms.

This year has been a different story altogether.

“We’ve had very excellent yields per acre. They’re off the charts,” said King Orchards owner John King. He bought the orchard, located in Central Lake in Michigan’s northwestern Lower Peninsula, three decades ago. “This year we were blessed.”

In fact, the Michigan apple industry set new shipment records two weeks in a row in October, according to the USDA-MDA Market News Service: 411,973 boxes of apples the week of Oct. 5 and 414,702 boxes the following week. The state distributes to 26 states and 18 countries.

The rebound happened partly because of favorable weather conditions and well-rested trees.

While fruit is growing on an apple tree, buds for the following crop already are growing, said Amy Irish-Brown, a Michigan State University extension educator. With so many trees producing no fruit in 2012, the nutrients they absorbed were allocated this year to the developing buds — especially those with the potential to produce fruit, she said.

As King, whose orchard produced only 30 percent of its typical apple crop last year, put it, “The trees had plenty of reserves for having the year off.” So, the experienced grower bought 240 additional apple bins in anticipation for the bounty of 2013.

Storing all of those apples, however, is an ever-changing process, BelleHarvest Sales Inc. president and CEO Mike Rothwell said. The West Michigan company has stored and marketed Michigan apples for nearly half a century and works with 150 growers.

The company has 30 CA storage rooms in Belding. Last year, it used two of those rooms. This year, they’re all full.

“Technology changes all the time. A lot of research is done,” he said. “What you tend to do is fine-tune the atmospheric levels in the room so they are absolutely optimal.”

King’s brother, Jim, who co-owns the family business, said they’ve had mixed results with SmartFresh, which appears to work better with some varieties than others.

But the technology holds great promise for lengthening shelf life at a time when the U.S. apple industry needs every edge to compete with producers from other countries, such as Brazil and New Zealand, he said.

“If SmartFresh can keep these apples crunchier for a longer time … and help us keep fresh apples on the shelves,” Jim King said, “it will be better for the entire industry and for consumers.”

Now that Michigan’s picking season is winding down — it typically runs from August through October, but has spilled in to early November — it’s time to make the transition, as John King says, from well-rested trees to napping apples.

“We’re lulling the apples to sleep.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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