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Shifting Seasons Lead to Sour Year for Michigan Cherry Farmers

August 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
An early spring followed by 19 frost events killed Michigan's cherry crop and farmers' livelihoods this year. Climatologists say that these shifting seasons could mean more hard years for cherry farmers in the future. Hari Sreenevasan reports as part of our Coping with Climate Change series.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How far can you spit a cherry pit? At the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich., the record stands at 74 feet.

Every summer, thousands flock here to feast on cherries, to spit cherry pits, and even crown a cherry queen. Traverse City calls itself the cherry capital of the world. The surrounding Great Lakes and rolling hills create a perfect climate for fruit-growing. The region produces roughly 75 percent of the country’s tart cherry crop every year. Those are the ones that go into pies, juice and preserves.

Once upon a time, Sara McGuire was the reigning royalty.

SARA MCGUIRE, Royal Farms: It’s a romantic story. Pat and I got engaged in 1995. And that was the year that I was the national cherry queen. And that was also the year that we started the farm. Pat said that we should name it after me, and that we should call it Royal Farms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, this year, running Royal Farms has been anything but a fairy tale. Statewide, more than 90 percent of the tart cherry crop was lost when freezing weather followed an unusually warm spring.

PAT MCGUIRE, Royal Farms: We have had to lay people off. We have had to work extra hours. We did everything we could in the spring to minimize the effects of the freezes that we did have. And you just felt like we just lost a fight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The McGuires are not alone. 2012 has been the worst year in recorded history for Michigan fruits.

JIM NUGENT, cherry farmer: It’s hard to tell in here what’s been harvested already and what hasn’t, isn’t it?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Nugent is a farmer and a researcher. He has been growing cherries his whole life, and he is also the former district horticulturist at the Michigan Agricultural Extension Center.

JIM NUGENT: In a normal year, the tart cherries being so red really stand out. This year, as you drive by the orchard, they just look green with the leaves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He says cherry trees wait for a spring warming in order to bloom. That happened much earlier than usual this year. In Michigan, temperatures reached nearly 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the state average.

JIM NUGENT: So, when we were in the mid-80s for five or six days in March, it was just unbelievably warm. And that pushed the trees to a stage of development that was about five-and-a-half weeks ahead of their normal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The early bloom left the fruit buds vulnerable to the cold. Between March and May, there were more than a dozen nights where temperatures dipped below freezing. Those cold snaps killed not only cherries, but also juice grapes, peaches and apples. Estimated losses are $210 million across the state.

DON GREGORY, Cherry Bay Orchards: We’re about $2.9 million less in income than we had a year ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Don Gregory is co-owner of Cherry Bay Orchards, the largest producer of tart cherries in the country, growing an average of 10 million to 15 million pounds of cherries a year.

This season, that’s down to 100,000 pounds.

DON GREGORY: And it would be like somebody telling you, hey, you’re not going to get a paycheck for 16 months. Now we expect you to come to work every day, we expect you to pay all your bills, and we will get back to a normal paycheck for you about 16 months from now. And so that’s as close as I can come to equating what this is kind of like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Farmers are now left with all the costs of maintaining their orchards, but with none of their revenue.

There is no crop insurance available for tart cherries in the United States. The only compensation for crop loss is filing for disaster relief, which offers farmers low interest loans.

Jeff Andresen, climatologist at Michigan State University, points out that this year’s early spring was an extreme weather event. But the existing record for cherry tree blooms gives him cause for concern.

JEFF ANDRESEN, Michigan State University: And we know now, from our climate records, that our seasonal warmup is beginning on the average of about a week-and-a-half earlier than it did just 30 years ago. So that’s a rapid change or a major change in so short a period.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This year wasn’t the first time in recent years that cherry farmers saw low yields. What really scares farmers is that a similar sequence of early spring warmups and frost events occurred in 2002.

JEFF ANDRESEN: Well, two of these types of years in 10 is something we don’t think has occurred before, at least not in the last century.

PAT MCGUIRE: I had a young farmer tell me a couple of months ago, he said, the old-timers told me — this is another cherry farmer — the old-timers told me that 2002 was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And now we have this. They lied to me.

I said, easy. They didn’t lie to you. They just don’t know. Nobody knows.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nobody knows, but, looking at the historical data, Andresen fears that frequent freeze events could become more likely.

JEFF ANDRESEN: Historically, looking at the actual data, we also have very, very strong evidence that the number of freeze events following the — really, the beginning of development for these tree fruit crops, that has increased.

So, overall, for the grower, for the industry, what we see now is essentially more risk with time. There’s a longer time frame where that crop is vulnerable to those — those spring freezes than used to be the case 30, 40, 50 years ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There is also the fear that the damage will not be limited to this season. The wet and cool temperatures left fruit trees vulnerable to diseases like bacterial canker, which invades the tissue and can permanently damage trees.

NIKKI ROTHWELL, Michigan State University: And now we’re talking about tree health, and we have been hit with a bacterial disease and a fungal disease that’s, you know, weakening these trees. And then if we have another weather event, like a really cold winter, what we see then is a lot of tree mortality.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nikki Rothwell is a horticulturist at the Michigan State University Extension Station. She is working with the fruit industry to adapt to the new realities that a changing climate may bring.

NIKKI ROTHWELL: If climate is changing, you know, how are we going to address this, how are we going to give growers kind of those tools that they need? Is there a cherry out there through breeding that blooms later, more — less susceptible to these frost situations?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michigan scientists are joining with international researchers to investigate how climate change will further affect the global cherry industry.

And, meanwhile, crop loss has ripple effects beyond the farmer. Honeybees needed for spring pollination had to be brought north five weeks early, but the frosts killed hives and beekeepers’ profits. Those who harvest the fruit have struggled to find enough work to stay afloat.

Processors have had to lay off workers and shut down operation lines. And, of course, there’s the final product, the pie. In the height of the summer fruit season, the Grand Traverse Pie Company makes more than 750 pies by hand a day. In order to keep using only Michigan fruit, they bought up much of the fruit crop that survived from a local grower and raised their prices by $2 a pie.

But Mike Busley, the owner, says at this rate, he might have to look elsewhere for enough cherries to stay in business.

MIKE BUSLEY, Grand Traverse Pie Company: And if we were getting cherries from somebody we didn’t know, we have never been there, we would make the pie, but I don’t know that it would be quite the same. So, I would hate to have that happen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And back at Royal Farms, Sara and Pat are making do by selling cherry products from past years, but that may not be enough.

PAT MCGUIRE: And I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. We’re not out of the woods of putting the business of out of business on the door.

SARA MCGUIRE: It’s going to be more expensive, for sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: They knew when they started that farming is a risky business, and they say years like this one are daunting for young people considering a future on the farm.

SARA MCGUIRE: To have a year like this, I think that probably is a bit discouraging and a little spooky. You know, is that really what I want to choose for myself? Is this going to — are we — is this not going to happen now for 50 years? Am I safe in my career time frame, or is it going to happen again next year or the year after?

PAT MCGUIRE: And I have had that thought. What if we don’t have fruit next year? How do you plan for that?

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while no one is ready to write off the cherry industry here altogether, it is a sour thought in the back of the minds of many farmers.