Orchards are open, could gas prices in Indiana threaten pick-your-own season?

Michelle Whaley stepped out early Wednesday to catch the end of this year’s strawberry season and the start of raspberry picking at Lehman’s Orchard in Niles.

A biology professor at the University of Notre Dame, Whaley brought one of his students – Yerania Serrato – a sophomore who was happy to have the opportunity to spend part of the day in the countryside at picking fruit rather than in the laboratory.

“I’ve been coming here for years,” Whaley explained, adding that Lehman’s is one of her stops on a summer trip visiting Lehman’s and other U-pick farms throughout the region. Next on his list will be blueberries, followed by apples later in the season.

On Wednesday, the two women planned to pick four liters of strawberries and another four liters of raspberries. Some will be frozen for smoothies and some will be used for desserts, Whaley explained, adding that gardening and fruit picking are some of her favorite summer activities.

The same is likely true for the thousands of visitors who visit area farms each year where they can find a wide variety of fruits and vegetables offered for picking or at farmers markets and roadside stands.

And this year’s harvest will generally not disappoint you.

Sporadic frost damage

Although the sweet and tart cherries were vulnerable to the April cold spells that hit the region, the damage was somewhat sporadic in terms of the orchards affected and whether they were able to mitigate the damage by watering down the trees with water or another mixture that could provide a thin protective layer of ice.

Tart cherries are ready for picking Wednesday, June 29, 2022 at Lehman Orchards in Niles.  Some cherries in southwestern Michigan were damaged by spring cold spells.  Visitors should therefore check before heading to their favorite orchard.

Lehman’s manager Steve Lecklider said he was surprised by one of the temperature drops, so there was a little damage to the buds of some of his cherry and plum trees. But even still, everything else “seems average to better than average,” he added.

Depending on the location of your favorite orchard, sweet and tart cherries are likely to be picked now. Strawberry picking is almost done for this year, but other early berries — raspberries, gooseberries, for example — are becoming available at Lehman’s for those who want to pick their own fresh fruit.

Those looking to pick cherries should check the website or Facebook page of their favorite picking operators before heading out, suggested Mike Reinke, an extension educator at Michigan State University.

Most of the damage to this year’s cherry crop occurred in the southwestern part of the state, as those trees were a bit further out than the orchards in northern Michigan during a few cold spells in late March. and April when developing flowers were vulnerable, he said.

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But even in the southwest corner of the state there are orchards that have been less impacted because of their proximity to the moderating influence of Lake Michigan or because they sit on higher ground, a he said, pointing out that the colder air eventually settles in the valleys.

“There are blocks (areas) that have lost 50% of their cherries and others that are in good condition,” Reinke said.

Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs is one of the pick-your-own operations that escaped any serious damage from April’s cold snaps. “Being on a ridge provides some protection,” said Jeff Lemon, owner of the winery and pick-your-own operation with his brother Tim.

With the exception of spot damage to some cherry and plum crops, most other fruit appears to be in good enough condition for the pick-your-own season, although some locations are already being forced to irrigate to compensate for the lack of precipitation as well as the high heat in recent weeks.

Notre Dame's second year, Yerania Serrato, picks raspberries Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Lehman Orchards in Niles.

“There will be plenty of fruit for local farmers’ markets,” said Bill Shane, a fruit tree specialist for MSU’s extension center. “Harvest dates are a few days behind last year, but still ahead of the long-term average.”

Lehman’s, Lemon Creek, and most other fruit farms also offer pre-harvested produce at farmers’ markets for those who don’t want to venture out into the fields. Blueberry Ranch, which anticipates the start of its pick-your-own season after July 4 and has announced that its 2022 harvest is looking very good, also offers pre-picked and frozen blueberries to its customers.

Besides the spot damage to the cherries, other fruits appear to be in good condition for the season, Reinke said. Peaches, hit hard by the polar vortex a few years ago, are expected to be strong this season.

And that’s especially important for orchard owners because fresh peaches have the ability to draw visitors from far beyond the region, typically ensuring a strong pick-your-own season, Reinke said.

Higher costs for everyone

The only question now is whether high fuel prices will deter visitors from making trips to visit the area’s many pick-your-own and farm stands.

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Farmers are already paying double and triple last year’s price for fuel, fertilizer and other items needed to grow crops, but they are unable to simply double and triple their prices without risking to lose customers, Reinke said.

“Even with good harvests across the board, few talk about profit,” he said of pick-your-own operators.

Steve Lecklider shows off black currants Wednesday, June 29, 2022 at Lehman Orchards in Niles, Michigan.

While no one is expecting another banner year like 2020 when people flocked to pick-your-owns for recreation during the pandemic, operators are still hoping that high gas prices might keep people a little closer to home this summer.

“If people are canceling longer trips, maybe they’ll take shorter trips,” Reinke said. And with grocery store aisles running out of items due to supply issues, people could also be looking for ways to stock up on locally grown fresh fruit and produce, he added.

That’s what Reinke hopes for the farmers he works with every day.

“I don’t think it will be like 2020, but it has the potential to be a good year if people travel locally due to high gas prices,” he said. “This support is needed now more than ever with the high costs farmers are facing.”

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