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Michigan growers foresee tasty year for cherry harvest

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Suttons Bay — Growers are anticipating a record cherry crop this year — which could mean lower prices for consumers — despite a weather scare that damaged some trees with baseball-sized hail.

Crop estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture indicate this year’s cherry crop will be abundant.

A crew from Cherry Bay Farms in Suttons Bay began harvesting sweet cherries this week in an orchard south of Leelanau County’s Suttons Bay.

Hundreds of pounds of golden sweets were shaken from the trees, dumped into steel boxes of cold, fresh water and driven to the processing plant.

“This is a large crop,” said Don Gregory of Cherry Bay Farms, which has 250 acres of sweet cherries.

Phil Korson, executive director of the Michigan Cherry Marketing Institute, concurred: “We have a big crop coming in, and we’re in pretty good shape.”

For the next three or four weeks, growers will be out harvesting.

A mild winter and spring has allowed the fruit trees to produce large amounts of fruit — estimated size of the sweet cherry harvest is 21,000 tons, up 32 percent from 2015. The tart cherry harvest, which will begin in about a week, is estimated at 222.7 million pounds, up 66 percent from the 2015 crop.

It could be the third largest crop on record, according to statistics from the Cherry Industry Administrative Board. The tart cherry harvest was 366 million pounds in 2001 and 355 million pounds in 2009.

Nationally, the cherry harvest this year is estimated to be up 39 percent from 2015, with a production harvest of 309 million pounds. Michigan ranks fourth in sweet cherry production, behind Washington, then Oregon and California, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Michigan is the country’s largest producer of tart cherries.

Growers escaped with just minimal damage when a wind and hail storm a week ago cut a mile-wide path through orchards in Leelanau and Antrim counties, damaging fruit trees with hail.

Cherry Bay Farms was hit hard, but Gregory said most of the damage was to his apple trees and not his cherry crop.

Jack King of King Orchards in Central Lake said his cherry trees sustained some damage but “we survived the storm well.”

“It’s amazing how big our crop is, the tart cherries were not quite ready for harvest, so they were hard and are OK,” he said. “It’s nuts, this is a really fruitful year.”

Kevin Robson of the Michigan Farm Bureau said it’s estimated this year’s cherry crop to be valued at $88 million, or 40 cents a pound, depending on final information such as crop quality and final size of the harvest. Some high-quality fruit could fetch higher prices per pound.

With a large crop, farmers will likely set some aside to try to stabilize prices and keep the market from being saturated. Growers will determine how much fruit goes to market, how much is frozen for future sales or how much is simply not harvested. The preliminary set-aside amount this year is 29 percent.

“We began our harvest of cherries a week early — June 25 — and have completed our harvest,” said Kim Overhiser, co-owner of Overhiser orchards of South Haven. “We still have U-Pick sweet cherry trees for harvesting by hand.”

Overhiser has about 80 acres of tart cherries and five acres of sweets at the fifth-generation farm operating since 1863.

“It was an excellent year, everything except our Balaton cherries were excellent,” she said.

Dry weather this spring affected the Balaton crop and earlier spring weather has the downstate harvest historically beginning a week or two earlier than northern Michigan orchard.

The Balaton cherry is a tart cherry introduced from Hungary by Michigan State University researchers some years ago, and provides a larger, firmer fruit that ripens later than the more common Montmorency tart cherry and is superior for juice.

Growers sell the fruit in many ways: Fresh, frozen, canned, brined or dried. They can be used for juice or wine, too.

“Northwestern Michigan is our biggest cherry producing area,” Korson said. “If there is dry weather such as we have this year, the fruit will be smaller, we’ll see where we end up with our set-aside program as the harvest continues. We’ll see where we end up with the percentages.”

The juice market is growing, he added. “It’s now been proven that cherry juice helps in alleviating arthritis pain, among other joint problems.”

The United States is the second largest producer of cherries, behind Turkey, which produced 510,000 tons last year.

John Russell is a freelance writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.