Flickr user farlane /

This year was one of the worst harvests for tart cherries in recorded history. That’s a hard hit considering Michigan is the nation’s largest producer of the fruit.

We visited the Leelanau Peninsula where one family-owned cherry farm has transitioned into a vineyard in order to make more money.

Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

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.

William Schmitt / Flickr

Fruit growers and processors in Michigan might get some help in the form of low interest loans if an expected package of bills moves through the legislature.

The loans are aimed at providing relief to those who lost most of their fruit crops after an unusual spring warm spell was followed by extended freezing temperatures.

MLive reports Michigan Department of Agriculture Director Keith Creagh said today the bills would create "five-year low interest loans":

The loans, which will be administered by banks and agricultural lenders, will meet an estimated total economic need of some $300 million in the state’s fruit growing and processing industry, Creagh said while attending the Michigan Food Processing and Agribusiness Summit.

Securing the loan guarantees at a low interest rate of 1 percent or 2 percent could cost the state about $15 million, Creagh said. The 5-year loans would be structured so borrowers would only pay interest in the first two years, he said.

Creagh says he'll also seek federal financial support for Michigan fruit growers and processors.

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

National unemployment numbers released this morning

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment numbers this morning. The unemployment rate "was little changed at 8.1 percent."

Nonfarm payroll employment rose by 115,000 for the month of April.

As Mark Memmott at NPR's Two-Way blog points out, "the economy needs to add more than 115,000 jobs a month to bring down the unemployment rate." So why the decline?

Mostly because the size of the "civilian labor force" shrank by 342,000 people, to 154.4 million. And the labor force "participation rate" edged down to 63.6 percent from 63.8 percent.

Assesing Michigan's fruit crop, worst in history

The fruit crop in Michigan got bitten by the bizarre weather. High temperatures in March brought the blossoms out, and freezes and frosts in April killed emerging buds.

More from the AP:

Farmers and extension agents say the one-two punch has all but wiped out the tart cherry crop, while other orchard fruits such as sweet cherries, apples, pears and peaches have suffered extensive damage. Juice grapes are another casualty.

Fifty-four-year-old David Rabe of Oceana County says he's been farming nearly all his life and has never seen it this bad. Only his asparagus may survive.

Flooding after rains move through the state

The flooding has caused problems for drivers this morning. Some roads in the Detroit and Flint areas have been closed.

The AP reports that both directions of I-75 at I-696 in suburban Detroit were closed today as the morning rush hour period approached.

A flash flood warning was issued for the Flint area, including Genesee and Shiawassee, counties due to the storm.

The National Weather Service has issued flood advisories, watches and warnings for parts of Michigan's Lower Peninsula following the storms.

More from the Flint Journal:

Hit with more than 5 inches of rain overnight, the county's creeks, streams and drains are swelling as residents cope with their own localized flooding this morning.

The National Weather Service said today that 5.4 inches of rain fell overnight, almost twice as much as the area usually gets in the entire month of May.

"It's bad everywhere," said county Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright. "The whole county got hit pretty well."

The 5.4 inches of rain recorded at Bishop overnight surpassed the total, normal monthly rainfall total for a typical month of May -- 3 inches.

screenshot / HBO

Michigan farmer and environmental activist Lynn Henning appeared on the Earth Day edition of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (video below).

Henning is known in Michigan as a thorn in the side of large scale animal farms - also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

I first met Henning back in 2006 in Hudson, Michigan when I did a story about CAFOs and water pollution.

I drove around with her as we followed trucks laden with liquefied manure and watched as they spread the liquid on nearby farm fields.

It's a practice that can add nutrients back to the land if done right, but with the huge quantities of manure these CAFOs are dealing with year round - doing it right is something they've had trouble with.

And Henning, a "Sierra Club Water Sentinel," has been watching them - reporting them to state officials when they weren't complying with the law.

It's clear from visiting these communities that these large scale farms have caused rifts among neighbors; some like the income they make selling corn and renting land to CAFO operators, but others feel CAFOs threaten their health and the beauty of rural farming life.

Working as an environmental activist in rural Michigan (she formed the group Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan), Henning says she's felt those divisions first-hand - saying she's been harassed and threatened on numerous occasions.

In 2010, Henning was given a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for her grassroots activism. From the Goldmand Prize website:

Family farmer and activist Lynn Henning exposed the egregious polluting practices of livestock factory farms in rural Michigan, gaining the attention of the federal EPA and prompting state regulators to issue hundreds of citations for water quality violations.

She's also been to the White House to meet President Obama. And now, here she is on Bill Maher. To watch, we have to pull up a chair up to "imnewshound's" television - he has subscription to HBO, after all (and being HBO and Bill Maher, be warned - there is some foul language):

dailyinvention / Creative Commons

A new Michigan State University study shows Michigan’s agriculture industry has grown dramatically throughout the recession.

Agriculture contributed a little more than $91.4 billion to Michigan’s economy in 2010. The economic impact of farming, food processing and the supply chain is twice as much as it was in 2004.

Photo courtesy of Carbon Green BioEnergy

The ethanol refinery for Carbon Green Bioenergy rises up out of the cornfields outside Lake Odessa Michigan.

The refinery was built in 2006. Mitch Miller, the CEO of the company, says a lot of refineries were popping up then.

“Five years ago, ethanol was a craze,” he says. “It was the next best thing.”

Now, not so much. Refineries aren’t being built. Politicians aren’t stopping by with platoons of reporters.

Seriously, when is the last time you heard anyone talk about ethanol?

Lake Express / Creative Commons

Michigan’s asparagus season has started early because of the warmer than usual weather this spring. But farmers are worried they don’t have enough workers to harvest the crop.

“Being a former migrant worker I can tell you that in the past Michigan has had a wealth of workers coming to Michigan. It was destination state,” Belen Ledezma said. She’s the Director of Migrant, Immigrant and Seasonal Worker Services for the Michigan’s Workforce Development Agency. 

Ledezma says the huge crop diversity in Michigan means migrant workers have a variety of jobs to choose from throughout the year. But this year farmers are struggling to find enough workers to harvest. “I think we’re starting to recognize that the same labor pool that we’re used to is no longer coming to Michigan,” Ledezma said.

Ledezma says the state is trying to help farmers recruit local workers to harvest asparagus. Her agency will host a job fair in southwest Michigan on Thursday in hopes of filling more than 220 immediate openings on asparagus farms.

Bob Vigiletti / Michigan Radio Picture Project

In 2009, Michigan hosted its last state fair after 161 years.

It was the second oldest in the country. But the event was losing too much money. Between 1970 and 1995, the fair lost on average 2 million dollars a year. Attendance was down 39 percent over the final eight years. In 2009, Governor Granholm ended all state financing.

Since then, not much has happened with the Fairgrounds. On Monday, Governor Snyder will sign bills which will authorize the state to sell the property. The 157 acre property is located just south of Woodward Avenue. Any money made from the sale of the Fairgrounds will be added to the state’s general fund.

William Schmitt / Flickr

After a highly unusual prolonged warm spell in the state, cold weather returned to northern Michigan putting Michigan's cherry crop at risk.

More from the Associated Press:

Phil Korson of the Cherry Marketing Institute says it probably will take another few weeks to determine the extent of the damage. But he says every time temperatures drop into the 20s, there will be crop damage.

Temperatures shot into the 80s for five consecutive March days in the northwestern Lower Peninsula. That caused trees to bloom early. But things quickly returned to normal. The National Weather Service says Leelanau County has had six nights below freezing and three nights in the 20s since the warmup.

The Michigan Farm Bureau says millions of buds froze at their most vulnerable development stage.

Growers say they hope to salvage a decent crop.

This past February, Interlochen Public Radio's Bob Allen reported on concerns about the changing climate and its effect on fruit trees in northern Michigan.

In his report, Northern Michigan fruit growers brace for a changing climate, Allen spoke with Duke Elsner. As an agricultural extension agent for more than 20 years in the Traverse City area, Elsner told Allen this past winter has been the "most bizarre winter weather he’s ever seen."

Growers were worried back in February about what happened this week, a frost after cherry trees blossomed.

Allen spoke with Jeff Andresen, the state’s climatologist and a professor of geology at Michigan State:

Andresen’s research shows an overall increase in temperatures of two degrees statewide in the last thirty years.

That’s pushing fruit trees to blossom earlier by as much as a week to ten days.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the last date of spring frost also was shifting earlier to keep pace. But it’s not.

That means the buds that produce the fruit are more exposed to the kind of freeze that wiped out the cherry crop in 2002.

Growers are tallying up the damage after the recent hard freeze.

We'll have more on how the cherry crop is doing in a story from Bob Allen on next week's Environment Report.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This month, we’re looking into some of the hidden assets of the Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths (the first part of the series is here). Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of local economies in the Midwest – it accounts for billions of dollars worth of exports and thousands of jobs. There’s been a lot of concern about whether enough young people are going into farming these days. But the ag industry goes well beyond being just farming – and plenty of young people are interested in that.

At Navy Pier, a special meeting of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences’s FFA chapter is being called to order. Ringed around the room, one by one, chapter officers check in during the traditional opening ceremony. It ends when President and Senior Jennifer Nelson asks her fellow FFA members: “Why are we here?”

The students stand and chant in unison: “To practice brotherhood, honor agriculture opportunities and responsibilities, and develop those qualities of leadership that an FFA member should possess.”

Maureen Reilly / Flickr

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 45 counties in Michigan as natural disaster areas for three separate sets of disaster conditions last year.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday announced the designation after periods of weather that occurred starting in February 2011 and May 2011. The designation made earlier this year means qualified farm operators are eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

Twenty-nine counties were designated primary natural disaster areas for weather including rain, wind, snow, flooding and tornadoes that started in February 2011. Ten got the designation for similar weather, drought and excessive heat starting at that point.

Six counties were designated primary natural disaster for drought and excessive heat starting in May 2011.

Lists of the counties are on the USDA's website.


The misshapen map above is from a 2011 USDA report, but it gives you the idea.

Pickles are big business in Michigan. With cucumber farmers located near pickling processing facilities, the state is the largest pickle producer in the country.

Rene Wisely of the Detroit News reports that Michigan is followed by Florida and North Carolina in pickle production.

Wisely reported on the expansion of Detroit and Brooklyn based specialty pickle maker McClure's. The company plans to move into an old manufacturing plant in Detroit:

After searching Troy, Clawson and even New York City, where Bob is based, they found it in Detroit at a former American Axle plant.

They begin setting up their new 20,000-square-foot leased home in a week or so, more than quadrupling their size.

"This extra space will help in many ways, right down to our glass jars," Joe McClure said. "I can place an order for more glass jars, which will save costs because the bigger the order, the smaller the price. We didn't have enough storage to do that before."

Wisely writes that McClure's has come long way from its beginnings in a 1,100 square foot space in Ann Arbor. The company has 25 employees and made $1.6 million in revenues last year.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow addressed agribusiness leaders yesterday at a conference in Lansing. Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and is getting ready to start negotiations on the 2012 farm bill.

She said the rest of the economy benefits when farms and agribusinesses prosper.

“We know it’s one out of four jobs – that still surprises people when I say that, both in Michigan and around the country – one out of four jobs and over $71 billion in economic activity just in Michigan,” said Stabenow.

Stabenow said she wants to shore up federal support for agricultural research in areas such as bio-fuels. And she said farmers could use some federal help in managing the risk of losses due to weather and price volatility.

Stabenow is a Democrat who is expected to seek reelection in November.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio.

Sales of real Christmas trees are down more than 20 percent for the past two decades. This season Christmas tree growers wanted to collectively start an advertising campaign to try to reverse that trend. But of all things, politics, got in the way. 

Artificial Christmas trees gaining favor

Real trees still outsell fake trees by about three to one. But artificial tree sales have been increasing for several years. Fake trees now have a slightly higher share of the Christmas tree market than real ones. Michigan is the third largest grower of real Christmas trees in the U.S., harvesting around 3 million a year.

Andrew Malone / Flickr

It's never easy to get citizens to show up at a planning commission meeting, but in Port Sheldon Township they had a bigger turnout than normal because of concerns over migrant worker housing on a nearby blueberry farm.

“Youth working on the farm is as old as farms,” said Craig Anderson, Agriculture Labor and Safety Services division manager at Michigan Farm Bureau. Anderson grew up on a farm in northern Michiagn.

“I started operating equipment at the age of 6 with a wiggle hoe – hoeing strawberries,” Anderson said.

The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing changes to child labor regulations. If the new rules are adopted kids under age 16 would not be able to touch a wiggle hoe because the weeding machine is gas powered. He says in rural areas working on a farm is a great job for a teenager and sometimes the only job around.

“You not only are going to exclude the family structure but you’re also going to exclude the rural structure. Where that farm employment is the first stepping stone to be able to do anything from purchasing your first bike all the way up to purchasing your first car and saving for college.”

The proposed changes would also prohibit children under age 16 from working with most farms animals. Anderson says the changes would hurt smaller farms that still rely on family members to do a lot of the work. The department of labor is accepting feedback on the changes through Thursday.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow says she’s “disappointed” the congressional super committee did not come to an agreement to cut the federal budget deficit.

Stabenow chairs the Senate’s Agriculture committee. The committee (along with the House Agriculture Committee) came up with bipartisan recommendations to cut $23 billion from the Department of Agriculture.

“We have done what we were asked to do,” Stabenow said. “We chose a different way…and I hope that we will see more of that because that’s what our country needs.”

Philip Jagenstedt / Flickr

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has been reporting recently on a series of stories about Michigan's evolving relationship with China.

From cars to crops to hats, these sometimes unusual Chinese connections could have a big impact on the state's economic future.

Here is a brief roundup, in case you missed any of the stories.

October 11: Selling American cars, China-style

Chinese dealerships with their aggressive sales staffs, shiny floors, and canned music may evoke their American counterparts, but Tracy Samilton says U.S. automakers are trying to cash in on China's booming demand for cars by tailoring their approach to suit local tastes and attitudes.

From working to maintain a solid brand reputation (the opinions of family and colleagues is probably the most important factor for Chinese car buyers), to explaining features to inexperienced drivers, Detroit car companies are betting on China as a key to their futures.

October 11: Tiny cars to tackle big problems

Megacities like Beijing and Shanghai already struggle with dense smog and days-long traffic jams clogging roads and highways, but  China's voracious appetite for cars and steadily increasing urban population only promise to make things worse.

Tracy Samilton reports that, among other solutions, General Motors' China division is experimenting with small electric vehicles that seat two, roll on two wheels, and can drive themselves, not to mention take up one fifth the parking space needed for a regular car.

October 14: Ford and the case of the Chinese official's hat

While Ford is currently working hard to be a top competitor the Chinese auto market, they lag behind other international automakers including General Motors.

Tracy Samilton tells us that part of the reason for this gap can be traced back to hats.

More specifically, in the early 1990s, Ford lost out on a contract to supply Chinese officials with a fleet of limousines because the unusual body shape of the Taurus knocked the hats right of the dignitaries' heads.

October 23: Exchanging students and changing perspectives

Engineering students in Shanghai and Ann Arbor are learning more than what is printed in their textbooks thanks to a University of Michigan Joint Institute program that sends Michigan students to study in China and brings Chinese students here to do the same.

Students from both sides of the program told Tracy Samilton about local hospitality, the allure of college football, and that a big part of the experience is about learning from their host culture and not just in the classroom.

November 7: From Michigan's fields to Chinese dinner tables

Detroit cars are certainly a major component in Michigan's economic connection with China, but as Tracy Samilton reports, there is also an increasing Chinese demand for Michigan crops and other food products.

Chinese livestock producers use Michigan grown soybeans and wheat as feed, but consumers are also developing a taste for Michigan foods from blueberries to cereal to baby food, bolstered in part by U.S. safety and quality standards.

November 8: Pure Michigan in China?

Both the Michigan tourism industry and the state capitol are hoping to make Michigan a destination for international tourists, especially for those  from China.

While some, including Governor Snyder have big plans to attract Chinese visitors by showcasing Michigan's natural beauty and automotive history, others say that most Chinese people probably haven't even heard of Michigan, and as Tracy Samilton reports, bad translations are not helping.

And an audio documentary...

As a way to bring these stories together, a team of Michigan Radio producers created an audio documentary on the Michigan-China connection that features content from all of these stories along with interviews with Kenneth Lieberthal, the Director of the John L. Thornton China Center, Wei Shen, Managing Director of Bridge Connect, and Rebecca Linland, the Director of Automotive Research at HIS Automotive.

- John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

China is already playing a role in Michigan’s effort to diversify its economy. The country’s 1.3 billion people don’t want just cars from Michigan companies, they also want Michigan foods.

From baby food to blueberries, Michigan is tapping into a new and profitable market in China.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow is hoping to provide a 30-percent federal tax cut to companies expanding in bio-based manufacturing.

Congress approved the tax cut for advanced manufacturers in 2009. Stabenow wants to renew that tax break and expand it for companies developing bio-based products. Bio-manufacturing covers dozens of products. The idea is to use crops like soybeans and corn to create prescriptions drugs, plastics, and soaps instead of refined crude oil.

“If we can get to 20-percent,” Stabenow said, “This will make a huge difference.”

United States National Archives

The Midwest’s persistently high unemployment rate isn’t expected to fall anytime soon.

But as Changing Gears' Kate Davidson reported, temporary employment agencies across the Midwest can’t seem to find enough people to fill all the open factory jobs they have waiting. These agencies are busier than they’ve been in years, because manufacturing has more open jobs than candidates willing or able to fill them.

Now, another industry finds itself in a similar position: agriculture. It's a big business all across the Midwest. In Michigan, agriculture is said to be the state’s second largest industry and is still growing.

But, Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association says agriculture producers can’t find enough people to fill jobs now, and he’s even more worried about the future.

“The industry demand is pretty solid, and it’s an increasingly severe problem,” Bryum says.

A large group within the agriculture industry -- white collar workers at agri-business companies -- is getting ready to retire soon. His concern is that a new generation of workers is not ready to replace those workers getting ready to leave.

Maureen Reilly / Flickr

The number of women running farms in Michigan is growing, according to a report in today's Lansing State Journal:

The number of Michigan farm acres managed by female principal operators has more than doubled in 30 years, from 252,980 acres in 1978 to 552,075 acres in 2007, the most recent date available from the United States Department of Agriculture's Michigan Field Office.

Flickr/Vampire Bear

A pilot with the Monroe County sheriff's office spotted many marijuana plants Saturday while flying over two corn fields in Milan Township, 60 miles west of Detroit.

Deputies counted 55 mature plants worth at least $25,000. The discovery is under investigation.

Federal drug agents from Toledo, Ohio, are also part of the case.

HAMILTON, Mich. (AP) - A judge says a western Michigan farm violated federal law by selling cows for slaughter with illegal levels of antibiotics.

Judge Gordon Quist ruled in favor of regulators who say Scenic View Dairy in Allegan County repeatedly ignored warnings about selling the cows for human consumption.

Quist didn't order a penalty last week and says he doesn't want to put Scenic View out of business. The judge told the farm and the government to come up with an agreement by the end of September.

Scenic View's primary business is milk but about 70 cows a week are sent to slaughter for human consumption. The farm claims there are exceptions to the government's drug rules. But the judge says
they don't fit.

dailyinvention / creative commons

Not only will there be way more Michigan apples this year, they’ll probably be bigger and better looking too.

According to estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture, Michigan apple growers are likely to produce 26.1 million bushels this season. The 5 year average is 19.5 million bushels. Only Washington and New York state grow more.

Denise Donohue is the Executive Director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

“This is the 5th year on the rollercoaster for Michigan. It’s been an up and down thing for the last three years in particular.”

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senator Debbie Stabenow visited a farm in West Michigan Monday to discuss how to expand the agriculture industry.

Stabenow is chairwoman the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

“We all have a stake in our farmers doing well because we all have a stake in having food security, in making sure we have wholesome, American grown, Michigan grown food for us.”

Last of a five-part series

In Michigan, one in 10 people who want work can't find a job, and that number doubles if you include people who are underemployed or who have just given up on their job search.

But despite high unemployment, some employers are still finding that the search for talent can be a challenge.

At the Hamilton Farm Bureau cooperative in southwest Michigan, a 50-ton truck is taking in a load of grain that will go to feed cattle.

Niala Boodhoo / Changing Gears

Our Changing Gears road trip continues. Yesterday, I was in Kohler, Wisconsin. Today, I went down state in Illinois to Decatur.

Driving south from Chicago, it only takes about 25 miles to hit the corn fields. For the next 150 miles to Decatur, it’s a sea of yellow corn tassels, a head tall.

user brother o'mara / Flickr

Unions in Detroit fight call for concessions

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has said an emergency manager takeover of Detroit is inevitable if unions in the city don't agree to concessions in their contracts. Union leaders say they won't agree to deep concessions.

From the Detroit Free Press:

Labor unions are resolved to call Mayor Dave Bing's bluff of an imminent state takeover of Detroit's finances if employees don't agree to deep concessions, setting the stage for a risky and potentially decisive showdown.

Despite Bing's warning that an emergency manager could wipe out employee contracts unilaterally and cut wages and benefits severely without worker approval, leaders of the city's largest unions told the Free Press they won't open their contracts to save the city $121 million annually in health care and pension costs.

Jesse Jackson calling for repeal of emergency manager law

Calling Michigan's emergency manager law "fundamentally unconstitutional" the Rev. Jesse Jackson is advocating for its repeal.

Jackson spoke at Pontiac City Hall yesterday, a city under the control of an emergency  manager, Michael Stampfler.

From the Oakland Press.

“Pontiac is just a piece of a bigger puzzle,” he told a crowd of more than 100 people at City Hall during a press conference held Sunday.

“My friend, this is not just black and white. This is about wrong and right.”

The Press reports that the group Michigan Forward is attempting to get enough signatures to put a referendum against the emergency manager law on November's ballot.

Bumper apple crop expected in Michigan

Despite the wild spring weather, apple growers are expected to have a good crop this year.

From the Holland Sentinel

The Michigan Apple Committee is estimating the state’s apple crop this year will be about 28 percent more than average.

“We have a 25 million bushel estimate,” Executive Director of the Michigan Apple Committee Denise Donohue said.

And West Michigan growers are echoing the same estimate.