2018-06-14 / Front Page

Bumper crop, bad timing

Still plenty of cherries from 2017
From staff reports

The federal government is predicting that the U.S. has the potential to pick one of the biggest tart cherry crops in history, which has left those in the industry concerned rather than happy.

According to the 2018 Michigan cherry forecast released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state conditions for growing cherries this spring have been about perfect with “no major damage ... from weather, insects or disease.”

But instead of bringing smiles to Leelanau growers and producers, the potential of U.S. orchards to bring 353 million pounds of tart cherries to an already saturated market has them concerned. If all those cherries were harvested, the 2018 crop would rise nearly 50 percent over the previous year and come in well ahead of the 329 million pounds picked in 2016.

“I’ve heard 300 and 380 on the high end,” said Mike Richter, who farms about 200 acres of cherries in Bingham Township. “It’s not bad, but it’s bad for grower returns. Any time you have a huge crop like that, the price isn’t there.”

The massive crop estimate comes amid uncertain times in the industry. A federal judge’s ruling recently forced an emergency election of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, and it’s unclear whether the yet-to-be-announced results of that election came in time to establish a set-aside percentage for 2018.

But regardless of the set-aside percentage, another massive crop could be problematic for tart cherry prices.

“When the freezers are already full, that makes it difficult,” Richter said. “It’s always nice to see a big crop — but if the freezers were empty it’d be excellent. Hopefully we can come up with a solution.”

The USDA’s Michigan tart cherry estimate is a limb-breaking 264 million pounds — well above what some local growers are anticipating.

Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in Bingham Township, said the number she’s been hearing falls between 215 million and 235 million

— 25 million in Southwest Michigan, 60 million in West Central Michigan and between 130 and 150 million in Northwest Michigan.

“I’m a little surprised — that seems really high for Michigan,” Rothwell said of the USDA estimate. “I’ve seen orchards that are loaded and orchards with pretty small crops, but you never really know what we have. Northern Michigan is all over the board.”

A silver living was offered in the USDA’s report for sweet cherries, which are also grown by most Leelanau County orchardists.

While national sweet cherry production is expected to fall 26 percent, the Michigan crop is predicted to grow by nearly 12 percent. Cool and wet weather in Washington and Oregon are blamed for the national decline.

In a perfect world for county growers, prices for sweets would increase along with yields from Leelanau orchards. But those in the industry caution that the impact is still weeks or months from being known.

“Our sweets look good so far,” Rothwell said. “I think growers are really excited about that.”

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