Michigan retailers importing cherries

May 15, 2012

When you scoop up ice cream with cherries in it this summer or add a handful of dried cherries to your salad chances are the fruit won’t be from Michigan. Or even from the United States.

Extremely unusual weather this spring has crippled the state’s entire tree fruit industry. The bulk of the nation’s tart cherry crop is produced here.

The official estimate for the size of the cherry crop won’t be in for a few more weeks.

Even the most optimistic projections for the amount of fruit on the trees amounts to less than ten percent of what the state typically grows.

Tim Brian is president of Smeltzer Orchards in Benzie County.

He grabs a stem from a tart cherry tree and with his thumbnail slices open several buds.

"And right there you can see that brown pistil right there, that’s cooked. There isn’t a single good one in this whole cluster."

A bizarre stretch of hot weather in early March woke trees up from winter dormancy. That was followed by more than a dozen nights of hard freezing temperatures.

Brian thinks there will be entire orchards that won’t be harvested at all this year even if there is a scattering of fruit in them.

"I mean, with $4 fuel, even if there is only ten cherries on a tree that’s not going to be economically feasible to harvest."

Smeltzer’s has been in the business for well over a century.  The company runs a medium sized processing plant that freezes and dries cherries.

Inside the plant, a dozen people are pitting and sorting sweet cherries. The thing is… these cherries are from Chile.

"Normally we would not do this. This is actually the first time we’ve done something like this."

Normally they would be Michigan cherries if not local. That’s because typically, a processor such as Smeltzer keeps a supply in the freezer.

But the crop was modest the last two years and demand for cherries was high. So the company sold most of what was in storage and now the cupboards are nearly bare.

That’s why Brian is scouring Europe for tart cherries right now. He’s got a big shipment coming in from Poland.

Some of that Polish fruit will go to Cherry Republic. The retailer sells everything cherry from dried fruit to jams, salsas to wine.

Owner Bob Sutherland was surprised when he couldn’t buy frozen cherries a couple of weeks ago. But he was able to bid on some Polish cherries in time to gear up his summer production, and he’s kept his sense of humor.

"Yes, and all four of our stores will be flying the Polish flag and our employees are going to be wearing the Polish emblem right on their shoulders. So, we’ll have fun."

The imported cherries come at a higher price.

But Cherry Republic plans to stretch its supply and keep costs down by mixing other fruits into its products.

Sutherland thinks if the industry pulls together and keeps its head up, it will weather this storm of bad luck.

"You know, we want to keep working. This is a $300 million industry up in northern Michigan…cherries. And we don’t want it to shut down."

The cherry industry nearly came to a standstill back in 2002 after a devastating spring freeze basically wiped out that year’s entire crop.

Don Gregory is an owner of one of the largest fruit orchards in the north. And he’s also part of one of the region’s biggest processors of dried and frozen cherries.

He says the company hasn’t decided yet whether to go with imports this year.

"As growers, we’ve always been afraid of imports. And boy we don’t want imports coming in and taking over our market."

But Gregory thinks one thing is pretty sure, there will be fewer cherry products on store shelves for years to come.

In fact, some say the industry was just getting fully back on its feet after the crop was wiped out a decade ago.