SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Knowing the quality of Michigan apples, Paul Vander Heide is investing in the superiority of Michigan fruit.

It’s not just buying apples from local farmers that has the owner of Vander Mill Cider and Winery investing — now he is investing in the farmers who produce the fruit.

Along with three other hard cider makers, Vander Heide has recently formed the Michigan Cider Association, a non-profit association with a two-fold purpose. MCA is a registered non-profit in the state and waiting federal processing.

“We’re going to be doing work within the Michigan agricultural industry, reaching out the different growers and trying to explain to Michigan apple growers what kind of things we are looking for as cider producers,” Vander Heide said. “(What we are looking for) may be different than what they’re used to producing for, which is largely the fresh market.”

The second purpose of MCA is to pool the resources of hard cider producers in an effort to educate consumers, according to Vander Heide who acts as president of the Association. He is joined by Nikki Rothwell of Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, Andrew Blake of Blake Farms and Andy Sietsema of Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill in Ada. But MCA is open to more members, especially on the Mitten’s east side.

“We’re really looking for folks that are energized to use time and resources making this collective effort worthwhile,” Vander Heide said. “So many times in business, you’ll see an association or guild with not a lot coming out of it. We want to make it worthwhile. We think the opportunity is there.”

The opportunity MCA hopes to capitalize requires building relationships with farmers.

“We’ve noticed that the farming community is kind of old school in the way it does business — establishing those relationships is very meaningful,” Vander Heide said. “We may be asking them to change the type of crop that they’re planting.

“It takes a good amount of trust because it takes a good amount of investment for them, both in time and in capital to start changing over to crops that may be more cider specific and less interesting, or less marketable in the fresh market.”

Step one to firming this relationship with apple growers will be an event MCA is hosting during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in downtown Grand Rapids on Dec. 9-11.

“We’re going to reach out to all of our growers,” Vander Heide said. “We’re going to bring cider makers and apple growers into one room. And just start to network with each other — talk about needs and how they differ for cider.”

The idea, Vander Heide explained, is to educate small orchards in a way that optimizes crop growing for both the apple producers and cider makers. Hard cider usually requires sweeter apples than typically sold in a grocery store. The right level of acid and tannins also help produce better cider.

Overall, MCA hopes to create a team approach with farmers.

“Apple farming in Michigan has become very much commodity-based,” he said. “That really puts a strain on the smaller orchards.

“This is a real opportunity for some diversification for things apple farmers know how to do — grow fruit.  If they have another outlet in a growing industry like cider, then that’s good for everybody.”

Nationally, Michigan ranks third in apple production and the state is a national leader in the growing hard cider market.

“We have a lot of producers coming up, we’ve got a thriving wine industry, which really helps encourage people to get into cider,” Vander Heide said. “There’s no doubt Michigan has some of the best fruit in the world.

“We’ve got very rich soil, we’ve got a lot of natural irrigation. Some of these other apple-growing states, they might produce a lot of apples, but it’s heavily irrigated. We’ve noticed, in having some history with out-of-state apples, Michigan really has the ability to a supply a superior quality product. “

For now, MCA is focused on the upcoming Fruit Expo. The Association will follow up with Michigan Cider Week, April 6-11, 2015, which culminates with the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, April 10-13. The Michigan Cider Association hopes to engage the competition event in a way that includes more consumers and increases public appeal — not merely relegating it to just a competition in small room.

Supporters of the Michigan Cider Association can like the organization on its Facebook Page.

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