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Friday, October 17, 2014

Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms | #MichiganApples

Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a Michigan Apple Blogger tour, hosted by the Michigan Apple Committee. It took place in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area, on what could not have been a more perfect representation of an autumn day in Michigan.

Let me back it up a few steps to tell you why I was (still am) extra excited about this opportunity. First and foremost, though I live in Indiana now (but literally just a stone's throw—or should I say apple's throw—over the border), I will always be a Michigan-girl at heart. I grew up in Michigan (coincidentally in the same area that the tour took place). I attended (the best) college in Michigan. And yes, I still hold up my hand to reference where I live, even though I have to point to the top of my wrist nowadays.

Plus, my family probably eats double our weight in apples every year—so yeah, there's that. Since we aim to eat local produce as much as possible (unless we're craving tropical or citrus), my youngest son is forever asking me if it's apple season. Fortunately, with the development of Controlled Atmosphere Storage, that makes apple season (sort of) last eleven months of the year. But that's something we'll talk about in my next installment of the #MichiganApples series. Today, it's all about where the apples begin...the orchard! So yes, Michigan apples are available basically year-round, but there's something special about that roughly 7-week harvest window.

Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
Mark Youngquist, fifth generation farmer at Youngquist farm's 180-acre orchard on "the Ridge".

Youngquist's farm is located in Kent City Michigan, on the Fruit Ridge of Michigan. "The Ridge", as it's known, is a topographical land feature and agricultural mecca consisting of 158 square miles that is about 20 miles long and 8 miles wide. Located just under 30 miles from Lake Michigan, elevations in the Ridge are greater than 800 feet; these conditions create a unique climate that is ideal for growing fruit. The Ridge was formed when rolling slopes were left behind after the melting of glaciers. The soil in this area is a loamy clay with moisture-holding qualities that allows for the successful growth of fruit trees (amongst other things).

The crates that lined the rows of the orchard, some filled with red-tinged golden orbs, others awaiting their precious cargo, say it all—Youngquist and Son. Family is really what Mark Youngquist is all about. As we stepped from the toasty bus into a wild autumn wind, we were greeted by Mark's son (and sixth generation grower), Jordan. Mark joined us momentarily and afforded us a glimpse inside their family business.
Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
Trees bursting with Red Chief Delicious Apples

In his grandfather's time, their 180-acre farm supported about 30 trees per acre. But these days, thanks to a high-density trellis system, they can fit closer to 1,000 trees per acre.  We were able to see instances of both methods of growing (traditional and trellis) as we wandered through the orchard. As you can probably imagine, the traditionally planted trees were larger and bushier, whereas the trees with a trellis appeared sparse, due to the pruning that takes place, allowing the inner branches more access to direct sunlight (hence the term that Mark uses "farming the sunlight").

Traditionally planted trees produce less per acre, with more variation in color and size, whereas trees in a high-density trellis system allow for more uniformity (think equal access to the sun), thus increasing output.

On a side note, any apple that touches the ground is considered "bad". I personally think this is sheer madness, but it's the law. Beautifully apples of all colors line the orchard rows like seasonal mulch. It's a good thing the apple pickers that work seasonally for Youngquist have such skilled hands (you know, so the majority of the apples wind up in their bags).
Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
A full crate of just-picked apples at Youngquist's farm

Let's talk about those workers that by all accounts, seem an extension of the Youngquist family. All apples are picked by hand, as machinery is not gentle enough to prevent damage to both the apples and the trees. I'm sure you've dropped an apple or two on the floor in your lifetime, and then cursed the bruise that appeared. But an apple stem must also be harvested with care, so as to not damage the small fruit bud on the tree (because we want more apples to grow). The foreman of the harvesting crew is actually the second generation of his own family to work for the Youngquist Farms, and he hand-picks (pun intended) his own crew of guys.

There's a twinkle in Mark Youngquist's eye as he speaks about the importance of family with his son next to him, his infant grandson (and future seventh generation grower) nearby, and stories of his extended family in Mexico. The Youngquists actually had housing units built on the edge of their farm to house their seasonal workers during harvest season.
Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
Julianna Wilson, Tree Fruit IPM Outreach Specialist at Michigan State University Extension, cuts into an apple to investigate its "spots".

We also learned a bit about the science of growing apples from Julianna Wilson of the MSU Extension. We got a glimpse into Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in the form of pheromone-based mating disruption for management of the codling moth. The codling moth being one of the most serious insect pests of Midwest apples, since their larvae feed on the insides of the apple, leaving an ugly little hole—which aside from the "ew" factor—also promotes internal rotting.

Basically, during mating season, pheromones are released into the orchard by little "puffer" machines (similar to an air freshener dispenser). This induces a state of confusion into the male codler moth. Can you imagine? I'm such a sap, because part of me wanted to feel sorry for the poor buggers...flying around in a state of bewilderment. But the Michigan apple-lover in me squashed that mini-battle.
Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples
Apple picking in progress on a perfect October day in Michigan.

I could have easily spent an entire day lazily walking the gently sloping rows of trees, heavy with apples...imagining myself ascending a towering ladder with white knuckles... and channeling my inner 2-year old (why? who? what?). But alas, our cozy little bus beckoned, eager to transport us to our next destination. So I hopped on, my apple-tite thoroughly whetted.

And now, because I'm a sucker for trivia and fun facts, did you know that:
  • Apples are one of the largest and most valuable fruit crops in Michigan.
  • Michigan is the 3rd largest apple producing state in the U.S. (or 2nd, depending on who you ask).
  • There are more than 9.2 million apples trees in commercial production in Michigan. Those trees cover 36,500 acres on 850 family-run farms. 
  • An average apple harvest is about 19.7 million bushels per year (or 828 million pounds). In 2013, Michigan harvested 30 million bushels or 1.26 billion pounds!
Fruit and Family on the Ridge: Youngquist Farms #MichiganApples

I recently took part in a Michigan Apples Blogger Tour, sponsored by the Michigan Apple Committee. I was not compensated for this post, and as always, the opinions stated herein are 100% my own.