Freezing weather has kept Michigan apple growers busy protecting their crops, but as of April 18, damage has been limited.

The industry won’t be out of range of dangerously cold weather, however, until about mid-May.

An unseasonably warm winter brought the 2012 crop on earlier than Scott Swindeman, vice president and sales manager of Deerfield, Mich.-based Applewood Orchards Inc., can remember in his 35 years in the business.

“And I don’t think any of the real old-timers have seen it this early, either,” Swindeman said.

With fruit maturing five weeks earlier than usual, it was at much greater risk of exposure to colder weather. When more seasonally normal weather returned to Michigan, some apple growers were exposed to as many as 12 nights of freezing temperatures as of April 18, with more possible in late April and early May, said Ken Nye, horticulture specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Many trees were in full bloom when the freezes hit, Nye said.

Nye believes the cold snap has the potential to seriously affect 2012 apple volumes, but as of April 18, growers were more optimistic.

After the 2010 season, when Michigan growers suffered major freeze-related losses, growers ramped up their frost protection programs significantly, said Don Armock, president of Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.

“If someone told me there were 400% or 500% more wind machines than there were two years ago, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Armock said.

Helicopters, heaters and water treatments are other methods Michigan growers have used to fight the effects of cold, he said.

And so far this spring, those methods are paying off.

“There’s the potential for a good crop yet,” Armock said. “There was a fair amount of damage in the northern district, but that’s just 10% of the state’s production.”

Orchards in southwest Michigan and in the Fruit Ridge region northwest of Grand Rapids, where 65% of the state’s apple crop is grown, have not been hit as hard, Armock and Swindeman said.

In addition, the grower-shippers said, substantial increases in Michigan apple acreage this season should help compensate for any freeze losses.

“There’s so much new production, it could negate that, and then some,” Armock said.

Despite growers’ optimism as of April 18, Armock said much of the freeze damage in 2010 occurred around Mother’s Day, noting growers aren’t out of the woods yet.