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Freeze, drought take bite out of fall tourism

Associated Press Modified: October 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm •  Published: October 8, 2012

At Crane Orchards, a 120-acre top U-pick tourist destination in Fenville, Mich., co-owner Rob Crane said just 5 percent of his apple crop survived the icy nights on his family's fifth-generation farm a few miles from Lake Michigan. With so few apples, its normal 60-day U-pick season shrank to a couple of weeks, and the last trees were picked clean before October.

Despite the lack of apples, Crane is hoping people still come to the farm for a hay ride along its lake and rolling hills, to navigate its corn maze or indulge in fruit pies and other homemade treats served at its restaurant.

"The fall is about making memories, family gatherings and outings to see the colors. It's that inner clock that's ticking that wants you to do that before winter," Crane said. "We're hoping people still come and do that."

The colors won't be so bright in some places. Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau in southwestern Michigan, said some drought-stressed trees in her area dropped their leaves early.

But despite a less brilliant landscape and lack of apples, she expected bustling fall business in an area often called the "Art Coast of Michigan" because of Saugatuck and Douglas' art galleries, shopping and bed and breakfast inns along Lake Michigan.

"I don't think it's going affect our business at all, but it always adds to it if there's really beautiful foliage," Fairchild said.

Others in the industry took steps to ensure their fall seasons weren't a total loss.

Greg Hochstedler, who owns the 160-acre Boondocks Farms about 30 miles east of Indianapolis, canceled his corn maze this year because the June planting time coincided with sweltering 100-degree days and the worst drought in decades.

"It was too dry, too dusty. It would have been a waste of seed," Hochstedler said.

Instead, he's focused on hosting fall weddings to make up some of the revenue usually generated by about 5,000 people who pay to get turned around in the corn labyrinth.

The farm has held about a dozen weddings this fall at its 4,000-square foot pavilion, which has walls that can be rolled up to reveal views of the surrounding countryside.

"That's why we call it Boondocks Farms — we're out in the boondocks," Hochstedler said.

Roney, the Indiana orchard owner, found a bright spot in his pumpkin patches, which were irrigated and emerged from the drought with a fine crop.

"We actually have one of the best pumpkin crops we've ever had as far size goes and quantity," Roney said. "I don't know why that is — maybe they just liked the heat."