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A Sour Season for Michigan’s Cherry Farmers

BY Saskia de Melker  August 16, 2012 at 10:55 AM EDT

Sara McGuire of Royal Farms at her market stand in Ellsworth, Mich. NewsHour Photo by Michael Werner

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. | Every summer, thousands flock to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan for all things cherry: pit spitting, pie eating, even the royal crowning of the National Cherry Queen. The region produces roughly 75 percent of the country’s tart cherry crop each year for pies, juice, and preserves.

In 1995, Sara McGuire was reigning royalty of the cherry festival. That same year, she and her high school sweetheart, Pat, got engaged and started growing cherries. For the first few years, business was strong, but then a series of low-yield years set them back. Still nothing could have prepared Royal Farms for 2012.

2012 has been the worst year in recorded history for Michigan fruit. Statewide, more than 90 percent of the tart cherry crop was lost when freezing weather followed an unusually warm spring.

“It’s been a real challenge emotionally and physically,” said Pat McGuire. “We have no crop. We’ve had to lay people off. We’ve had to work extra hours. We did everything we could in the spring to minimize the effects of the freezes that we did have. We felt like we just lost a fight.”

Northwestern Michigan is considered by many an ideal place for growing fruit. Located on the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, the surrounding Great Lakes and rolling hills help create a temperate climate.

But as Pat walks through his orchards now, they are a haunting green. This year, nature harvested the trees.

Cherry trees remain dormant throughout winter until a spring warming wakes them up. That happened much earlier this year. Temperatures in March shattered records across the country, reaching the mid-80’s in Michigan that month – that’s nearly 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the state average. That pushed the trees to a development stage about 5.5 weeks ahead of normal, Nugent said.

And when temperatures dropped again, the trees’ early buds were vulnerable. From late March through May, there were 15 to 20 nights in which temperatures fell below freezing. Farmers tried using wind fans to keep warm air circulating around the fruit trees, but it was little help.

The cold snaps killed not only cherries, but also juice grapes, peaches, and apples. Losses across the state are estimated at $210 million.

Don Gregory is co-owner of Cherry Bay Orchards, the largest producer of tart cherries in the country. Usually, he grows an average of 10 to 15 million pounds of cherries a year. This season, that’s down to one hundred thousand pounds.

“It would be like somebody telling you, ‘Hey, you’re not going to get a paycheck for sixteen months. Now we expect you to come to work every day, we expect you to pay all of your bills, and we’ll get back to a normal paycheck in about sixteen months.’” said Gregory.

For most farmers, harvesting equipment was mothballed through the season. Many called up their seasonal workers to tell them there would be no work this season. Processors were forced to shut down operation lines, and producers imported cherries from as far away as Poland to meet demands.

This isn’t the first time Michigan experienced such a devastating season. A similar extremely early spring followed by frost events occurred in 2002.

“We thought that was really a statistical outlier, and 10 years later we have a very similar situation,” said Jim Nugent. “It’s really disconcerting when we have two once-in-a-lifetime events within an 11-year period.”

And while these years were particularly extreme, the trend gives state climatologist Jeff Andresen cause for concern.

We know from our climate records that our seasonal warm-up is beginning an average of a week and a half earlier than it did just 30 years ago.” Andresen said. “We also have very, very strong evidence that the number of freeze events following the beginning of development for these tree fruit crops has increased. So there’s a longer time frame where that crop is vulnerable to those spring freezes than used to be the case 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

That translates to more risk overall for the cherry grower and for the industry, he adds. Michigan scientists are now working with the fruit industry and international researchers to investigate how climate change will further affect the global cherry industry.

“If climate is changing, how are we going to address this and how are we going to give growers those tools that they need?” said Nikki Rothwell, horticulturist at the Michigan State University Horticultural Research Center, “For example is there a cherry out there through breeding that blooms later and is less susceptible to these frost situations?”

Despite these risks, protection for the industry is almost nonexistent. As a specialty crop, there is no insurance for tart cherries. Low-interest state loans are being offered to farmers as compensation for the disastrous crop loss this season, but that offers growers minimal relief.

To make matters worse, the damage may extend beyond this year. The frosts left fruit trees vulnerable to diseases like bacterial canker which invades the tissue and can permanently damage trees. Plus, the farmers are left with all of the costs of maintaining their orchards, but none of their revenue.

The McGuires are trying to stay positive and focusing on selling cherry products from past seasons to get through this one. “We try to constantly think creatively about how we can do things differently to reduce costs. That’s been our strategy since we got started, but this year it’s become more important,” Sara said.

Pat admits that they haven’t ruled out putting the ‘Out of Business’ sign on the door. They knew when they started that farming was a risky business, but the odds of crop loss feel stacked against them now, he said.

What if we don’t have fruit next year?“ Pat said. “How do you plan for that?”

It is a sour thought in the minds of many farmers.

This report will air on NewsHour’s broadcast on Thursday. For more of our coverage on Michigan’s cherry crop failure, visit the Coping with Climate Change page.

Videography by Michael Werner and Saskia de Melker.

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