CENTRAL LAKE, Mich. -- 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-trend
ing 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 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.