After a devastating season last year, cherry growers in northern Michigan are looking forward to a promising harvest.
As families prepare for their Independence Day cookouts, having fresh fruit is something we often take for granted. It’s not for some Michigan farmers after such a difficult go in 2012. This year’s crop looks to have a happier ending, as fruit-laden cherry trees line the roads in northern Michigan. After such a trying year in 2012, 2013 is a welcome change.
"We went last year with a complete crop freeze-out. We only harvested about 2% of our normal crop last year," says Ben LaCross, who is a fruit producer in Cedar, Mich., which is just outside of Traverse City.
He wasn’t alone. Fruit farmers all across Michigan saw unusually warm temperatures reach the 80s in March. The trees bloomed early and a freeze hit late, making it a year for the record books.
"I have never seen a year like that," says Daryl Shooks, who raises cherries in Central Lake, Mich. "I've heard about it. My dad used to talk about the year they couldn't find enough for a cherry pie. Well, I’ve seen one now, and I hope to never see another one."
While northern Michigan residents complained about the long, cold winter, area farmers knew it signaled a promising year.
"That's the way we like it in the fruit business," LaCross says. "The longer we can stay cool in the springtime, the less we have to worry about those freezes and frosts that hurt us so much in 2012."
The Shooks are expecting a slightly above-average crop this year, bringing in a total of 2 million pounds of both sweet and tart cherries. Northern Michigan is a huge growing area for tart cherries, accounting for half the tart cherries produced in the United States.
"We are super excited to have an abundant crop this year, so everyone get ready to eat a lot of cherry pie, because there's a lot of fruit out there," says Daryl’s son, Greg Shooks.
While farmers are all smiles this year, they are still feeling the lasting effects of no crop in 2012. Without a safety net in place, no fruit meant no income.
"Luckily in the state of Michigan, our state legislature stepped up and helped buy down some points for some low interest loans that fruit farmers could get last year to be able to withstand last year's freeze," says Lacross.
"After the devastation and after many phone calls, we now have a sweet cherry policy in Antrim County," says Greg Shooks. "We're still working toward a tart cherry policy, but feel very optimistic moving forward that we will have a tart cherry safety net."
It's more than just the financial burden from last year's lack of crop that's weighing on these farmers' minds; it's also possible diseases this year.
"We introduced a disease called bacterial canker. It's a bacterial illness that affects the trees due to frost, cold, wet temperatures during bloom time," LaCross says. He adds that it can be devastating in sweet cherry varieties, killing off branches.
A shortage of labor could also impact fruit growers in northern Michigan. Last year, LaCross was forced to call their migrant workers who make the trek north every year to tell them they had no fruit to harvest. It’s still uncertain if he’ll get all those workers back this year.
"These are entrepreneurial people; they're industrious," explains LaCross. "So, they went someplace else in the country and found work. This year we invited all of them back. Some of them have shown up and some have told us they have other places to go, and some new families are promising to come up"
The Shooks don’t employ migrant workers, as they have enough family and local teenagers to fulfill all their labor needs. Instead, it’s rebuilding demand that’s a concern for their operation.
"Sales are always a challenge, but when you don't have a product to sell, it's even more challenging," says Greg Shooks. "So, I believe we're going to feel this sales slump for a couple years until we can gain some of this market back and prove we do have a stable inventory and a very good product to sell."
With an abundant crop this year, harvest will be in full swing in just a matter of weeks. Even though it’s a few days to a week later than normal, it’s better than no crop at all.