2017-05-04 / Front Page

Sweets wanted; tarts not so much

Lots of tarts in storage

With the sweet cherry bloom set to take off this weekend across Leelanau County, local orchardists are torn a bit about the upcoming cherry season.

They are hoping for a solid sweet cherry crop, and warmer weather is needed to pollinate the blooms that are now popping.

But there’s a big carry-over of tarts from the 2016 crop.

“I don’t think anybody is hoping for a limb buster,” said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. “And I was talking to some folks in mid-central (Michigan) who I thought might have gotten hit a lot harder (with poor pollination) because it was wet and cold when things were in bloom. But they seem to think everything is OK.”

Retired Bingham Township cherry farmer Joe Grant has sold his 200 acres of fruit to his son, newphew and nephew’s wife, John Grant and Steve and Becky Grant. He said growers are concerned about over-saturating the market with tart cherries.

“Most farmers are discouraged about tarts. We finally got a good crop (in 2016), and we had to shake them on the ground. What the boys told me is they didn’t end up paying what they said they were going to.

“But farmers are optimistic. If we weren’t, we’d just give up.”

According to statistics from the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, US cherry growers produced and had processed about 315 million pounds of tart cherries in 2016, although the three-year average for sales is only 238 million pounds. So the industry is storing much of its 2016 crop heading into another growing season that, so far, has avoided frost damage.

Cherries, however, are a long way from being turned over to processors, and the immediate challenge will be getting blooms pollinated with temperatures of around 50 degres forecasted into next week. Pollination improves when temps hit 60 degrees, and gets better at 70 degrees.

Those in the business have been surprised that cherry buds that swelled early have avoided frost damaged. Temperatures are projected to remain above the freezing mark in the days ahead

“It’s been surprising to me for as early as we started to advance the crop back in February and early March,” said Jim Nugent, a former county Extension agent who also grows cherries in Bingham Township. “We got some warm weather and we were way ahead. It was starting to remind me of 2012. It’s been amazing because we have not had significant frost damage to this point.”

History says the odds are against having another bumper crop.

“We had a very large crop last year,” Nugent recalled. “When I look at the data, I’ve only seen big crops back-to-back once in the industry, and that was in 1964 and ‘65. That can happen in individual orchards, but not as an industry.

“Back-to-back really big crops can be a struggle for the industry, and the industry is use to fluxations.”

Looking beyond pollination challenges and a possible market imbalance, trees in county orchards are looking healthy and strong. And heavy rains last weekend have helped saturate soils heading into the growing season.

“The trees are looking gorgeous,” said Rothwell as she was examining trees planted with a new training system last year. “The sweets are in bloom right now. They’re beautiful. I think things are going to open today.”

She pointed to another good sign: “I’m looking at a bloom right now, and there are five bees around.”

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