cherries

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan’s apple and cherry growers are happy with this year’s crop.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for apple growers. They had the worst year on record two years ago because of an early freeze. But they had the best year on record last fall, despite a major labor shortage.

Wikimedia Commons

Get this, 75% of the nation's tart cherries are grown in Michigan, most of that in the northwest Lower Peninsula.

But every year the industry that brings us cherry pies and the Traverse City Cherry Festival faces restrictions set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ron French, the Senior Writer for Bridge Magazine, said because so many tart cherries are grown in such a small area, the weather can greatly affect the crop. So the USDA puts a limit on the percentage of Michigan's tart cherry crop that can be sold so prices don't swing too dramatically.

“The result of that is that in some years as much as one half or more in cherries produced in Michigan is left rotting on the ground,” French said.

Most growers favor restrictions, but one food processing company in Elk Rapids is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

French said Elk Rapids is hoping to remove the restrictions on cherries completely.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

It’s been a couple of roller coaster years for the state’s fruit growers.

Michigan apple growers had the most dramatic ride. 80-degree weather in March 2012, followed by multiple freezes caused total crop failure that fall, the worst since 1945.

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

The weather may seem perfect to a lot us right now.

But not so perfect for farmers, many of whom have yet to plant their spring crops.

Michigan has been enjoying beautiful sunny skies during the month of May, but the state’s farmers are still waiting for their fields to dry out from April’s heavy showers.

Fields are so soggy that only about 5% of Michigan’s corn crop has been planted.  Compare that with 2012 when 42% of the crop at this time last year.

“I don’t think we’ve got a lot of nervousness right now,” says Ken Nye, with the Michigan Farm Bureau, “It does mean we’re ….going to compress this thing a little bit…and it does mean that we could be a little bit late before everything gets finishes up depending on the weather from here.”

Nye says by contrast Michigan’s fruit crops are doing well this year.  Especially compared with 2012.   More than 90% of Michigan’s tart cherry crop was lost after unusually warm weather in February led the trees to bloom early and more than a dozen freezes between March and May killed it.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

You probably know 2012 was just horrible for Michigan’s fruit growers. But new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows it was officially the worst on record since tracking began – in 1925.  

There were only 11.6 million pounds of tart cherries produced in Michigan, usually the nation’s top producer of the fruit. That’s a 92 percent drop from last year’s 157.5 million pounds.

Marty Saffell is a USDA statistician based in the Michigan office in Lansing.

“For some of the fruits like peaches pears plums and cherries there are the majority of the growers had essentially zero crops so there was essentially zero income,” Saffell said.

Saffell says Michigan apple growers had the worst year since 1945.

user farlane / flickr

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.

Cherries
user maena / MorgueFile.com

The federal government has approved financial support for Michigan fruit growers whose crops suffered due to unusual temperature fluctuations.

Almost all of Michigan's counties--72 of 83-- are now considered natural disaster areas and eligible for help.

Some growers say crop losses haven't been this bad in three generations.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow is up for reelection this November and is looking to prove her bona fides amongst the state's agriculturally-minded constituents.

According to a story from Bloomberg News, incumbent lawmakers are struggling to find new ways to prove their worth to voters after Congress outlawed earmarks for home-state projects.

Stabenow, Bloomberg writes, is using a $969 billion national farm policy bill she wrote as head of the Senate Agriculture Committee to show Michigan voters ---especially food growers--- that she is working for them.

From Bloomberg News:

[Stabenow] persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to let her bring up the legislation early so she could tout its expanded assistance to farmers -- including Michigan fruit growers, who have suffered crippling crop losses this spring.

Unseasonably-fluctuating temperatures in March and April have been wreaking havoc on Michigan's tart cherry crop, a staple product for some northern parts of the state. The Environment Report's Bob Allen reported in April that Northwest Michigan saw a tart cherry crop loss of 50 percent to 70 percent this year. Other fruits like apples, peaches and plums were also hit hard.

Bloomberg News writes that "cherries and other fruit crops damaged in Michigan would have more protections under the expanded insurance system in the farm bill," and Stabenow would like to make sure farmers know it.

According to Bloomberg, some growers are getting the message:

Ben LaCross, a northern Michigan grower of cherries, apples and plums, told reporters last week that his farm would be in “free fall” without federal assistance, adding that Stabenow’s measure would expand the tools available to help farmers cope with crop failures like the one this year.

“Crop insurance will help keep family businesses like mine in business,” LaCross said.

The farm bill is being debated in the Senate.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Michigan retailers importing cherries

May 15, 2012
Bob Allen

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."

Many Michigan farmers are spending this May focusing on their insurance needs.

The sporadic spring freezes and frosts that followed the unusually mild winter devastated Michigan’s apple, cherry and peach crops.     Most farmers have access to some form of crop insurance.   But according to the Michigan Farm Bureau, the insurance only covers about 60 to 70 percent of the loss.

Photo courtesy of Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station

by Bob Allen for The Environment Report

A hard freeze has wiped out a big portion of the cherry crop in Northwest Michigan this spring.  The area produces more than half the state’s cherries that end up in desserts, juice and as dried fruit.

An historic early warm-up in March left fruit trees vulnerable to frost once the weather turned cooler again.

Temperatures broke records for the month of March across the Great Lakes region.

Climate researchers say there’s never been anything like it going back more than a hundred years.

“We’re seeing history made before our eyes at least in terms of climatology.”

Jeff Andresen is the state’s climatologist and professor of geography at Michigan State.

“And in some ways if we look at where our vegetation is and how advanced it is, it’s probably a month ahead of where it typically is.”

Andresen is careful to point out that this year’s early warm-up is an extreme weather event.

He says it far outpaces the previous warmest March on record in 1945.

He can’t say it’s a direct result of climate change.

But it fits the predicted long term pattern of change that includes extreme fluctuations.

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.