Coping with a historically low crop in the Cherry Capital

Jul 19, 2012

The great loss of cherries

Earlier this month, most of the counties in Michigan were designated disaster areas for agriculture. Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the nation, and this year, the state lost 90 percent of its crop.

Ben LaCross is one of the many farmers who is trying to cope in what is known to be the Cherry Capital of the world. He manages 750 acres of cherries in Leelanau County, just outside Traverse City.

While walking through his cherry orchard next to his family’s home, he points out that there are zero cherries on the trees when usually, around this time of year, each of his trees would be holding 50 to 100 pounds of the crop.

LaCross just got done harvesting his cherry crop for the season. He said in a normal year, he harvests 4.5 million pounds of cherries in five weeks. This year, it only took one week to harvest 4 percent of his annual yield.

"So what we harvested this year in a week we would normally do on an average day."

“So what we harvested this year in a week we would normally do on an average day,” LaCross said.

The freeze

The loss of cherries in the region is a result of an early tease of summer followed by a frost.

“You don’t tend to associate a natural disaster with 80 degree sunny days,” he said.

LaCross said after more than a week of warm weather in March, the buds on his cherry trees began to swell, only to be decimated by 19 nights of freezing temperatures a few weeks later. LaCross said this may be the worst harvest in recorded history.

A decade of bad harvests

Cherry growers talk a lot about 2002. That was a terrible year as well. But LaCross says farmers had tarts in reserve back then that they could sell to pay the bills.

Tart cherries, the main cherry crop in Michigan.
Tart cherries, the main cherry crop in Michigan.
Credit Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

“So it has basically taken us 10 years to regain those markets, and now we have another catastrophic freeze event,” he said.

And this time around, there are no reserves. Because the last two harvests have been lean ones.

“There’s nothing in the inventory pipeline to supply our customer bases,” LaCross said.

Getting creative with the few cherries available

So that means LaCross is going to have to import cherries for the first time in order to keep his customers.

“We are trying to be creative to how we can stretch what little of a crop there is out there,” he said.

And LaCross isn’t alone.

In Traverse City, shoppers are tasting the 15 dozen cherry products sold at Cherry Republic. Here you can find chocolate covered cherries, cherry peanut butter and cherry salsa to name a few.

Owner Bob Sutherland said he is creating new products this year to stretch the few cherries available by mixing more cranberries, nuts and chocolate into the company’s treats.  

“For the first time, we have a truce with cranberries. And the war with cranberries is on a one year off,” Sutherland said.

And like LaCross, Cherry Republic will also be importing cherries for the first time in the business’ history.

“Our first choice is Michigan, but I want to keep my bakers baking, my jammers jamming and our driers going, so we do need to source cherries wherever we can,” Sutherland said.

That means when people start seeing cherry products from Michigan companies this year, a lot of those cherries will be coming from places like Poland and Turkey.

What's next for cherry growers

But back on the Leelanau peninsula, cherry farmer Ben LaCross is hopeful there will be a good harvest next cherry season.

“There’s an old saying in farming that, ‘we’ve had two good years in the cherry business, 1991 and next year.’ So we can’t wait for next year at this point,” he said.

The government is working on ways to help farmers like LaCross. Low interest loans are available to farmers this year and the federal Farm Bill could give growers more help, like adding crop insurance for boutique fruits like tart cherries.  In the meantime, farmers will hope Mother Nature will produce a fruitful crop next year.

Emily Fox- Michigan Radio Newsroom