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Ferguson: Head of apple association optimistic despite fall-off in harvest

At first blush, the situation for Wisconsin apple producers might appear to be dire.

But Tom Ferguson, head of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, is philosophical about the forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that this year’s harvest will be down about 20 percent compared to last year.

“Last year’s harvest was big, so over the long term, things will be about normal,” said Ferguson, who has about 60 acres near La Crosse that produce 37 varieties of apples.

He’s just pleased the harvest – which is between one and two weeks early – has begun and that the forecast is not down even more.

“Spring came pretty early this year,” he said. “And then there were some problems with frost, so our quantity is down. When it gets to 25 degrees or below, the blossoms just won’t survive.”

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The hot and wet summer also produced some horticultural challenges for apple growers, he said, but nothing they couldn’t deal with.

“Overall – other than the crop being down – conditions are pretty good, so we’ll survive for another year,” quipped Ferguson, who splits his production between wholesale and a retail operation.

“Farmers are always optimistic that next year will be better,” he added.

Ferguson said apples are grown all over the Badger State. The Galesville area north of La Crosse is a major producer, as is Gays Mills, northeast of Prairie du Chien. Door County, known for its fruit, also has one large orchard.

Ferguson said his group has about 145 members, with most managing orchards in the five- to 20-acre range. Some growers have 20- to 100-acre orchards and five members have operations that are more than 100 acres.

He said Wisconsin averages about 1.5 million bushels of myriad apple varieties a year, compared to 500,000 bushels for Minnesota and 15 million bushels in Michigan.

He said prices will remain about the same as last year at farm stands and the same should be true in grocery stores.

Ferguson said while many orchards still press apples for cider, he ships his to a “common press” in Elgin, Minn. It is operated by the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co., which consists of 15 orchards on both sides of the big river and in northeast Iowa.

While some orchards have been bulldozed in the Minneapolis area as development continues to spread outward, he said new orchards are also being planted.

In Wisconsin, apples are raised in more rural areas, so the pressure isn’t as great, he said.

“We want to encourage newer farmers to consider growing apples,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but then most farming is. But it can be rewarding, too.”

The flip side of being in an urban area is that there are more people to visit farm stands and the retail side of an orchard operation.

“Though there can be pressure to develop, the farm stands can be more profitable,” he said.

Ferguson said he is following the controversy over the SweeTango apple, which was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Some growers have sued over a contract that gives one Minnesota orchard the exclusive rights to market and sell this new apple -- and to control who grows it.

About a dozen apple growers who joined the suit allege the arrangement effectively shuts them out of what could be the hottest new apple variety since the Honeycrisp and could jeopardize the Mississippi River valley fruit industry.

“This is going to take a while to hammer out,” he said, noting that his association has not taken a stand on the issue.

“Our role is to provide good educational opportunities for growers in this state and stay abreast of issues,” he said. “But we are definitely watching.”

Speaking as an individual grower, Ferguson said he believes Minnesota farmers should be free to grow an apple that is developed at a publicly funded university.

Fred Wescott, a Minnesota grower who runs the Mississippi Valley Fruit Company, was less reserved and said the arrangement is unfair.

“When the university comes out with a new variety and that variety gets leveraged against all the other growers in the area, it takes the playing field and turns it upside down," he said.

The Wisconsin association is focused on developing new varieties of its own. Ferguson is working with Doug Shefelbine of Holmen, Wis., who has been a “seed planter for 50 years and come up with some pretty promising new apples.”

Ferguson said every time an apple seed is planted, “you get a new type. Most people don’t know that, but it’s why there are so many varieties.

“Working with Doug, we have planted thousands of trees and 16 new varieties. Two of those look really good so we plan to several thousand more over next few years.

“We have decided to take a route where you can demonstrate that it doesn’t take a big government institution and taxpayer money to get new apples,” he said.

Just as they were more than 100 years ago, Ferguson said all apples are still harvested by hand. And that requires a lot of labor in the fall.

He said he believes the government needs to make it easier for orchards to have seasonal labor.

He said his association monitors efforts to crack down on undocumented migrants because it could affect harvests.

“That’s something we have to keep abreast of because labor is always an issue,” he said. “But the growers I know always take the steps they need to take to make sure they have a legal workforce that is treated well.”

He said none of his regular employees are migrants. But he hires a contractor to handle the picking for him and he estimates that 90 percent of those workers are itinerant workers.

“The availability of labor depends where you are,” he said. “There are always jobs in apple orchards in the fall. But it only lasts for a couple of months.”

Ferguson, who said the most popular apple now is the Honeycrisp, is urging Wisconsinites to visit their local apple producers in the coming weeks and buy their fruit.

“Orchards are places where people can experience what farming is like,” he said. “If you really want to meet the grower, go to an orchard during harvest .

“Besides, apples are a fruit that is not only good, but good for you. We want to encourage lifestyle practices that get rid of junk food and candy.”

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

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