Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 12, 2013

Ag Forum: Deer damage is increasing

Survey hopes to get a handle on the population

Special to the Record-Eagle

SUTTONS BAY — Over this past year, deer damage has become a major issue for fruit growers in Leelanau County. This was the primary topic of discussion at a recent Leelanau County Horticultural Society meeting.

The entire two-hour meeting focused on concerns over increasing deer damage in county orchards and vineyards. Growers at the meeting described the damage, which ranged from deer eating all the buds off young apple trees to bucks rubbing themselves against older tart cherries to two separate five-acre blocks of wine grapes that were completely stripped of fruit by foraging deer. The end result for stripping buds of young apples is often tree mortality and buck-rubbed older trees have a shortened life span.

As a relatively new farmer to Leelanau County, I am interested to know why deer were more problematic in 2012 than in past years. We have seen milder winters, which can result in increased survival of deer. We also had a reduced crop, and there was little fruit for the deer to eat. As a result, they fed on the wood of the tree rather than fallen fruit.

Despite these changes, another area of concern for the LCHS is the Quality Deer Management program. This program was enacted more than 10 years ago and was the result of a committed group of hunters who wanted to enhance the appeal of hunting in northern Michigan by increasing the average size of bucks harvested.

To shoot a buck in Leelanau County under the QDM program, the male must have a minimum of three horns on a side of his antlers. This program has been extremely successful for the hunting, taxidermy, processing and tourism segments of our economy, and there are many pictures of large antlered deer to substantiate the success of this program. Unfortunately, there is a downside to this program, as the increased deer population has resulted in substantial damage to orchards and vineyards throughout the county.

Some of the current frustration in the agricultural community began before the QDM program was enacted. In order to put the QDM Program into action, the Michigan Natural Resource Commission had to survey both landowners and hunters, and both of these groups had to agree with a two-thirds majority to enact QDM. The results from the surveys did not meet the two-thirds requirement. Despite this, QDM was given the go-ahead as a pilot program in Leelanau County.

The frustration continues to mount among growers, who have seen an increase in their deer management costs as they have to purchase more of the costly block permits (which give permission to hunt deer to manage a population on a farm) and invest in additional deer deterrents (i.e. dryer sheets, tankage bags, deer fence). Even with these increased costs and use of deterrents, the costs from tree destruction and loss of production can still be devastating for the grower.

Fruit farming in northern Michigan is an extremely capital-intensive business. For instance, the trees and vines begin producing between three and seven years after planting and do not reach peak production until 10 to 11 years. During that time, growers continue to care for and invest in tree and vine development: pruning, mulching, fertilizing and pest management applications.

If managed properly, these trees/vines become productive assets for 20 to 25 years. The loss of even a single tree or vine is complex, as it is not as simple as putting another one in its place. Factors such as orchard and vineyard uniformity, adequate spray and fertilizer coverage and maintenance of operating efficiency in all blocks of fruit are critical decision-making criteria when trees or vines are lost in a production system. Management strategies also change as trees or vines age. Once an orchard or vineyard is in its sixth year, replacing single trees or vines in that system is not economically practical.

As there is current discussion of expanding the QDM program to a 12-county area in northern Michigan, the LCHS wants to engage in an important and meaningful conversation about the costs and benefits of the QDM pilot program in Leelanau County. To that end, the LCHS has contracted with researchers at Michigan State University's Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center to survey growers in northern Michigan about current and past deer damage. Researchers will also conduct deer damage sampling across Leelanau County to begin to quantify the amount of damage in orchards and vineyards. These damage numbers will be used in an economic model that will help determine the financial impacts of deer damage to perennial cropping systems.

The LCHS will share the results of the survey with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with the hope of having a fair and honest dialog about the economic impacts of the Quality Deer Management program on fruit farming.

Mark Miezlo is president of the Leelanau County Horticultural Society.