2018-08-30 / Life in Leelanau

Fruit grower changes with the times

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff

DESPITE WET weather at the Farmers Market in Empire Saturday, fruit grower Al Bakker of Bakker’s Acres has a smile on his face as he packs up to go home. DESPITE WET weather at the Farmers Market in Empire Saturday, fruit grower Al Bakker of Bakker’s Acres has a smile on his face as he packs up to go home. Twenty-five years ago when he planted rows of Macintosh seedlings, fruit grower Al Bakker wasn’t envisioning them with their roots in the air.

But consumer tastes evolve and markets change. It’s a reality that’s familiar to Bakker, who’s willing to pull established varieties of apple trees for new ones.

“There’s some sadness there, but there’s also the reality of the economics and I realize there’s other things that can be done,” he said. “I could spend my time on something that breaks even or spend my time on something more profitable.”

Bakker and his wife, Lynn, raised their children on the family farm in northern Suttons Bay Township. Lynn is a registered forester.

Now entering his fourth decade of farming, Al Bakker has a handle on what works and what doesn’t. After all, he was one of the first growers to introduce the Honeycrisp apple to the northern Michigan market.

He finds satisfaction in connecting fruit supply with consumer demand.

“I just enjoy the horticulture part — the plant manipulation, the differences in biology and discovering new things and new varieties,” Bakker said. “Consumers are always looking for something better, something different. I enjoy being part of the process of bringing that to them.”

Bakker has focused his efforts on horticulture. He lets other people handle other aspects of growing. He believes this approach — specialization — is important.

“I think you can get stretched too thin on trying to micromanage everything,” he said. “It’s like when you own a car, you know enough to take care of the basics, but you have someone who can keep it running in really good order. Like any job, specialize in what you do best and let someone specialize on what they do best.”

He added that having an overall view is needed to keep things in perspective.

“In the apple market its really important to know what Washington is doing,” Bakker said. “But it is a long-term outlook that you need, and knowing the competition… I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for (new) things, but I don’t have anything (I’m working on) right now.”

He said he’s watching a new variety developed with state-funded research monies in Washington that he anticipates will become a source of competition in the next five to seven years.

It’s called the “Cosmic Crisp.”

Who knows, that may be Bakker’s next purchase once Cosmic Crisp trees are available for sale.

But it’s not always easy to introduce a new variety in Leelanau County.

“It’s all weather-dependent,” Bakker said. “There’s all different considerations for different apples.”

He explained there are other apple varieties are popular, but they ripen too late for the short Leelanau County growing season.

“And I don’t want to pick in the snow,” he said.

And sometimes the weather is in Leelanau County’s favor.

Last year, Bakker said, Michigan cleaned up with Honeycrisp. He explained that growers here had an early harvest, while apples in Washington were late. That timing allowed apples from orchards like Bakker’s to be first-in-line to sell to distributors.

This year, Bakker said he will have seven commercial varieties in addition to 25 varieties that he sells at farmers markets and at the family fruit stand. But with harvest just a week or two away, nothing is guaranteed.

“We are still very nervous,” he said. “Last night we had a beautiful rain, but if there’s a cold front with high winds - I can only hope and pray. Things can change in a hurry.”

If the weather cooperates, Bakker said the Zestars, an early, crunchy, sweet-tart apple is just a week away, with the SweeTango apples - a Honeycrisp and Zestar hybrid - the following week.

So what if a frost hits? What keeps him going after a particularly bad year?

“I’m a farmer,” he said. “There’s always next year. Things grow.”

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