2018-07-05 / Front Page

Sweet cherries ready for festival, but concerns for small growers

By Jay Bushen
Of The Enterprise staff

For the first time in years, freshly picked Leelanau County sweet cherries are being sold at the National Cherry Festival.

“Sweets are being hand harvested,” said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center. “Things are moving. We were just out in a block and I was surprised how red the cherries are. The heat is making things move right along.”

That’s the good news.

But while Traverse City continues to celebrate all things cherry, tart cherry industry representatives tomorrow are scheduled to gather in Grand Rapids to make a big decision regarding the anticipated bumper crop.

The recently realigned and USDA-approved Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB) is slated to meet at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel to determine what percentage of 2018 cherries, if any, will be diverted this summer.

“It’s going to be a big deal,” Rothwell said. “They’re going to meet and we’ll see what happens with the restriction, but we’ve got a potentially big crop on our hands.”

For growers in the tart-cherry-growing mecca that is Leelanau County, much is riding on that decision. The set-aside percentage is closely tied to the price growers can expect to receive for their fruit.

In an industry inundated with European imports, another bumper crop may result in supply exceeding demand by a large margin.

“Tarts, nobody knows where that’s going to be yet — they’re all waiting for tomorrow,” said Suttons Bay grower Jim Eckerle, who has been producing cherries on the peninsula since 1970.

Eckerle said county growers received about 25 cents per pound of top-grade cherries last year, but that most growers were lucky to see a price closer to 19 or 20 cents. In comparison, he said, the price 25 years ago was about 55 cents.

Price aside, fruit producers are getting busy.

The sweet cherry harvest is just getting underway in parts of Leelanau, with tart cherries still two weeks or longer from reaching maturity.

But in southwest Michigan growers are already harvesting tarts. So — as some northwest Michigan growers question how the CIAB can determine a set-aside after Michigan’s harvest has already started — farmers want to get fruit to processors quickly.

“Some people try to make them, but they’re not ready yet,” Eckerle said. “The brine is going to start in the middle of the week next week. To make some decent canners, it’s gonna’ be about the same time. They’re rushing this season. ... You can’t be shakin’ them when they’re only half ripe, half matured. It’s like buying a green banana.”

The temptation to expedite the harvesting process may grow in coming weeks.

Warm weather will likely lead to more overlap among Michigan’s trio of cherry-harvesting regions, placing pressure on processing facilities — of which Leelanau has only one.

Eckerle recommended growers remain patient, ripen fruit appropriately and be wary of the dreaded spotted wing drosophila (SWD).

“Keep your sprays on,” he said of the invasive fruit fly. “If you don’t keep the spray on, you’re not gonna’ get ‘em harvested.”

Rothwell said the number of trapped SWD in an unsprayed orchard near the Bingham Township research center “went through the roof” this week.

Numbers had been relatively low this year.

“I’ve been cautiously optimistic,” she said, “but we know how quickly it can increase.”

Gary Fredrickson is aware.

Fredrickson, who farms about 50 acres of cherries, is at a geographic disadvantage in the SWD battle because Leelanau Township growers are the last to harvest. By then, SWD populations are well established.

“The big issue, for us, is that bug,” he said.

What may be more concerning, however, is that Northport growers will be last in what could be a race to process fruit — and diversion credits aren’t exactly enough to make ends meet.

When asked about small-scale growers, Fredrickson said “the handwriting’s on the wall.”

“I think there’s a lot that will bite the dust this year,” he said.

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