Local apple orchards share in 'no apple' season

Thursday, October 18, 2012
John and Mary Lucken, at their Blue Bird Orchard near Akron, are among local apple producers who lost crops due the April freeze. Apple producers in Michigan and portions of the eastern United States also lost their crops.

When John Lucken bought the 22-acre plot of ground near his Akron area farm, he described it as farmland never farmed.

The land, on a mound of fertile loess soil, had been owned by the late Harvey Lias and left as grassland and pasture for nearly 100 years.

Today the land is the site of Blue Bird Orchard, planted in 2009, following the return of Lucken and his wife, Mary, to Lucken's hometown.

The couple formerly lived in Denver, where Lucken had a geologist's consultant business and had worked on exploration and development projects from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

His wife was a Spanish teacher and now serves periodically as a language translator.

"I had no idea we'd end up farming," Lucken said as he considered his return home and was to purchase the farm near the pasture land. "What I did realize, however, was that I wanted to make the grassland something more productive than I could with haying twice a year when the hay price was down to nothing."

It was about the same time Lucken was approached by another Akron resident, Tony Heisterkamp, encouraging him to plant some apple trees.

Lucken followed the advice and now has an approximately 600-tree orchard on 5 acres of his property.

At the suggestion of his wife, he also put the first of what are now just over 2,000 aronia berry bushes on the hill.

Lucken pointed to the unusually vivid green strip of grass making its path across the orchard area.

He explained the unique feature is the result of an underground spring, that had -- until this year -- made the orchard a successful project.

The orchard, with about 10 varieties of apples -- a major share of which are the popular Honeycrisp, was "wiped out" production-wise, despite the supply of water coming from the spring.

That spring and Lucken's generator orchard irrigation system proved to be no match for the April freeze.

"The freeze, with the trees blossoming out, is what I consider the tip of the iceberg when we consider what the drought has done to corn and soybean crops," he said. "It's a disappointing situation, but we're hopeful it will be different next year."

Similar situations of a much larger scale have been reported in the major apple-producing states in the eastern United States, including Michigan and New York state.

The USDA estimates this year's apple crop at 8.1 billion pounds, down from 9.4 billion pounds last year.

Michigan apple production for the year is expected to produce just 105 million pounds of apples this year, down from 985 million pounds in 2011.

In New York state, production is predicted to fall from 1.2 billion to 590 million pounds.

These losses are expected to "more than offset" the gains recorded by Washington state, the nation's leading apple producer and those of fourth place producer, Pennsylvania, according to information from the USDA.

As to how the reduced production will affect apple prices at the grocery store, Tony Melvin, assistant grocery manager of Fareway, in Le Mars, says at present there's been "a little variance, not a whole lot" on current inventory orders.

Across town, Nick Delperdang, produce manager for Hy-Vee, said last week that apple prices there are "pretty steady."

Despite the loss of this year's apple crop, the Luckens remain optimistic with the hope next year will be a more productive one for their Blue Bird Orchard.

The two say they're appreciative of living in a rural area and, despite often busy schedules and active community involvement, welcome the opportunities they have.

"It's wonderful to be here a in the midst of nature," Mary said, sharing a smile with her husband. "We enjoy it."