2017-08-03 / Front Page

Orchardists in a race against time

Rains, heat take toll on Leelanau County tart cherries
By Jay Bushen
Of The Enterprise staff

ABBY LaLONDE collects and carts around bags of tart cherries at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center on Monday as part of a spotted wing drosophila efficacy trial. ABBY LaLONDE collects and carts around bags of tart cherries at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center on Monday as part of a spotted wing drosophila efficacy trial. Untimely rain late in the growing season and high temperatures early this week have placed local tart cherry growers in a race against the clock.

Industry representatives say they’ve been seeing some high-quality tarts but that the heat has taken its toll on soft and susceptible fruit. Soft cherries don’t pit cleanly, making them tough to process.

“I feel more optimistic than I did last week,” said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center. “We’ve had a challenging season with the rain, pressure for disease and looming SWD (spotted wing drosophila) pressure, but we’re hanging in there.”

Fortunately, most tart cherry growers are well past the midway point.

Rothwell said Northport growers, who typically shake last in Leelanau County, wrapped up their sweet cherry harvests this week and have since moved into tart cherry blocks.

Regardless, the sooner growers can get fruit to the processor, the better.

“It’s a challenging year,” said Glenn LaCross, longtime president of Leelanau Fruit Company in Suttons Bay. “We started out thinking how wonderful all the moisture was, but it certainly didn’t help the overall quality of sweet cherries or sour cherries.

“With sweet cherries, we experienced some cracking and some rot. With sour cherries, it really contributed to softness, which is a real challenge when we’re trying to get every last bit out of a pound of cherries.”

LaCross said a 4,000-pound load of 75-grade tarts went to waste on Tuesday, and it may not be the last.

Don Gregory, president of Cherry Bay Orchards, said tart cherry quality has fallen off in a hurry.

“The last week has just gotten tough,” Gregory said. “People are going to be ready for this season to be over with. As the quality diminishes, it takes a lot of the fun out of everything.”

Northwest Michigan has plenty of poundage to process this year. The region is slated to produce more than half of the U.S. tart cherry haul — 130 million of 259 million pounds. The region produced about 43 percent of the country’s massive 2016 crop, which weighed 341.3 million pounds.

According to the Week 4 report from the Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB), which was dated Saturday, regional growers had processed 72.4 million pounds of tart cherries — more than 55 percent of the region’s 130-million- pound estimate.

“We’ve been able to manage our input quite well, but if they get too low of a grade, we have a hard time dealing with that fruit,” LaCross said. “If it’s not real ripe, we really can’t divert that to concentrate because we won’t get any yield out of that concentrate.”

Excess inventory isn’t exactly ideal in a market flooded with foreign fruit. The number of imported tart cherries recently increased 10-fold, from 22 million pounds in 2008 to a whopping 224 million in 2015.

The federal government is yet to introduce industry-altering tariffs on Eastern European countries like Turkey and Poland, LaCross said, although foreign imports will be down this year after a spring frost froze out a sizable chunk of Polish production.

FreshPlaza, a Netherlands-based news organization, reported last month that freezing temperatures in mid-April and early May could cost Poland up to 30 percent of its tart cherry crop.

“We hope it’s going to affect us in a positive fashion,” LaCross said. “With our dollar being the strongest in the world, they’re going to use up every cherry from every other country before they make a purchase from us.”

Many of those cherries are Turkish tart cherries, which will likely arrive in large numbers once again this year.

Rothwell said the Turkish researchers she spoke with during her spring trip to Japan had anticipated another “decent crop” this year.

Of course, Leelanau County growers also compete with U.S. cherry producers. Utah and Wisconsin, for example, have harvested more than a fifth of the U.S. tart cherry total thus far in 2017.

“The good news is that the quality has been very good around the country,” said Mollie Woods, executive director of the CIAB. “We’ve had some diversion in other districts and some with files for crop insurance; one district was hit pretty hard by hail.

“We’re finishing up harvest in Washington and they’re experiencing triple-digit temperatures and have been for weeks. That plays a little bit into quality, but they’re reporting that the quality is holding, so that’s good.”

Woods, who did not provide an estimated price for 2017 tarts, said quality in the Great Lakes State appeared to be high as of Tuesday.

In terms of quantity, she said two processors last week suggested northwest Michigan would easily exceed its 130-million-pound estimate, but that those processors are “backing off” of that assertion this week.

“We’re waiting to see where this all shakes out,” Woods said, “no pun intended.”

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