Welchs: 95 percent of grapes in Southwest Michigan destroyed

SAINT JOSEPH, Mich. - For Welch’s grape growers, it was the most devastating frost in Michigan’s history. That’s according to the National Grape Cooperation, better known as Welch’s Foods.

Cold temperatures wiped out 95 percent of all the juice grapes in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren County.

“You know it’s a complete wipeout,” said John Jasper, a surveyor for Welch’s Foods. Jasper said more than 10,000 acres of juice grapes were destroyed Thursday morning across Southwest Michigan.

Jasper had a difficult job Friday. He and two other Welch’s surveyors tried to figure out how many grapes the company could expect this year at harvest. “I went through hundreds of acres before I found a spot that had a live bud,” he said.

“I’ve probably been to 100 farms in the last two days,” said Jasper. “The majority (are destroyed) 95 percent.”

According to the National Grape Cooperation, Berrien, Cass and Van Buren farmers collected $24 million in 2011. Jasper said in 2012 they would be lucky to net $2 million.

The situation gets worse for Paul Bixby of Bixby Orchards in Berrien Springs. “Mostly on this tree, everything is gone,” Bixby said pointing out a devastated apple orchard.

Bixby didn’t only lose the grapes. He estimates Thursday’s frost killed half of his apple crop. “You can see the black and you can see five in that cluster. All of them look the same.”

“A lot of these guys know the numbers and they know they’re in trouble,” said Jasper. He said so many juice grapes are gone it’s not cost effective for farmers to harvest the grapes that survived. 

Jasper said Welch’s Foods gets one-sixth of their grapes from Southwest Michigan. “This is probably our worst year,” he said. The frost could force the company to change its recipe for some of its products. 

Congressman Fred Upton’s office said Friday they support a disaster declaration for Southwest Michigan’s vineyards.

“Congress does not have an official role in crop loss disaster declarations, but Fred fully supports a disaster declaration for grapes and any other crops that have been affected by this year’s severe weather events. Our office has reached out to Governor Snyder,” said a spokesperson for Upton.

Farmers would qualify for low interest loans from the USDA if a disaster was declared.

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