There's no other way to describe it, last year was absolutely devastating to the Southwest Michigan fruit crop. Many orchards had almost no crop to sell for the entire season.
2012 had record March heat, which brought the blooms out too early, then April freezes, which killed much of the fruit, then the drought.
So, can you imagine working the entire year, but making no money? That's what it was like for many Southwest Michigan fruit farmers.
The big question is whether 2013 can make up for the devastation of last year.
With so many cherries on the trees at the Lehman's Orchard in Berrien County, it does feel like you hit the jack pot. People are out picking them by the bucket full.
Steve Lecklider, a fourth generation farmer says they have over 100 varieties of fruit at their orchard, and the weather this year is so far producing an abundant crop.
“It seems all the major fruit crops are doing well we are able to pick quite a bit of fruit every day and the customers are happy to finally get the tart cherries after taking last year off,” says Steve Lecklider with Lehman's Orchard.
Lecklider says he can't afford to take time off this year. He has been in the business for 20 years and says he hopes last year’s devastation is an event he will not see for another thirty years.
“That was really quite shocking. We lost about 98 percent of all of our crops,” says Lecklider. “Last year it was a zero crop of cherries. And this year we have cherries all the way through the canopy, so it makes for great picking.”
The family started their orchard with a peach tree in 1943. Last year, there was not a peach crop, this year the weather is cooperating.
“We physically had to come out here and thin the peaches this year as last year mother nature thinned all of the crop off,” says Lecklider. “Double and Triple the blooms so we would go and thin out all of the different fruit lets between the actual fruit otherwise they would come out small, yes actual golf ball size.”
By the end of the week they plan on starting to pick from their thirty five varieties of peaches.
“These are looking good,” says Lecklider. “You can see the red blush so this fruit we will be picking in another week or so. In the final week they fill out and grow rapidly and end up with nice juicy flavor.”
This year's colorful crops are also popping on the blueberry bushes, and they are ready for picking, along with grapes, it helped maintain the farm last year.
“Last year we had a series of freezes, and that tended to take quite a bit of the crop,” says Lecklider. ”But we had some late bloom on blue berries we were able to capture a partial crop. It is a really large crop. We had some cold weather to April when the blooms started. The blooms were late. So the late freezes really did not take any of the crops. Over the last week or so we have been picking off some off some of the larger fruit, and then after you pick larger fruit the smaller fruit will fill out and ripen.”
If you are looking to taste the candy like flavor of the honey crisp you will need to wait until late August or September. It is much different from last years "rotten crop."
“We had just about six bushels of apples over ten acres, so it was next to zero,” says Lecklider. “This year It is a nice full crop. Compared to last year we did not have a crop and this year it is night and day.”
And this year they are working day and night to keep up with the flourishing landscape.
“There's a little more speed to the gate this year,” explains Lecklider. “We have crops to pick and it is a nice pace picking all the fruit crops and there is a lot of fruit out here. This year you can see the crop you are picking in September. And so there is a goal to work toward nice feeling preparing for the apple harvest.”
This summer, brilliant colors are painted throughout the orchard, and if you would like to make a cherry pie, don't worry, you can have the pits removed before you leave.
This mechanical cherry pitter from 1947 is working overtime. And this year the workers at Lehman's Orchard are whistling while they work.
“It is a happy kind of work because you see the results of your labor and see the final product coming out of the orchard,” says Lecklider.
So, unless something really drastic changes in the weather, this year is going be a bumper fruit crop in Southwest Michigan. This is obviously welcomed news.
The only thing that could disrupt the crop is a sudden drought, which is unlikely, could hurt apples and some later fruits.
And a hail storm could do some real damage to what's still on the trees, but that would be localized and not widespread.
So, in general, this is going to be a good year for our orchards.