Michigan bets on Cold War pollen to remain cherry king

Michael Gerstein, The Detroit News

Clarksville — On a sprawling 200-acre property about an hour’s drive from Lansing, the fruit is nearly picked clean on the nation’s most diverse tart cherry orchard.

The most diverse American cherry orchard is in Clarksville, Michigan at the Michigan State University facility.

Mid-July is near the end of cherry season in Michigan, but Amy Iezzoni can still show off some of the 30 tart cherry varieties in the orchard nestled in a quiet town of 400 people.

This is where the longtime Michigan State University horticulture professor and America’s only tart cherry breeder has labored for decades to create new varieties of the delicate fruit, hoping to ward off pests, biological threats and frosts that cost the industry big bucks each year.

Many of the Clarksville cherry trees are the offspring of Iezzoni’s 1983 visit behind the communist Iron Curtain, where she gathered pollen from Eastern European countries.

She ended up creating thousands of seed strains from crosses with Yugoslavian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and Russian pollen, not to mention German and French pollen, hoping it might be the secret ingredient to boost U.S. sales and fight crop losses.

“I get up every day and go to work and I’m trying to solve these problems. You know, they’re difficult, but somebody is trying to solve these,” Iezzoni said.

Industry and horticulture experts see her pioneering research as a way to secure the future of the cherry industry for Michigan, which led the nation last year by producing 72 percent of America’s tart cherries for products such as cherry pies, jam or sauce. Tart cherries are even being dubbed a “super food” that can help inflammation and insomnia.

Michigan State University’s Amy Iezzoni talks about her research on cherry breeding, working to eradicate pests and hazards.

“She’s worked a long time and remains well focused on problems that are important to the industry and has been able to make real strides,” said William Vance Baird, chairman of the MSU Horticulture Department. “So she’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders.”

Iezzoni’s research, like the slow-growing cherry tree, may not bear fruit for many more years.

“It is a long slog in the breeding program,” said Phil Korson, president of the Dewitt-based Cherry Marketing Institute. “It’s a lifetime project. And the outcome for her research programs will be still coming out long after she’s not involved. It has a legacy of her own.”

Iezzoni’s work looks promising to those who have weathered the cherry industry’s storms during the past five years.

An early thaw followed by normal winter freezes in 2012 killed more than 90 percent of the state’s tart cherries and 80 percent of its sweet cherries. The situation was so dire the annual National Cherry Festival in Traverse City brought in cherries from Washington state.

A cherry fungus called armillaria root rot also damages crops each year and can put some farmers out of business if enough trees die. Because a cherry tree takes seven years to bear fruit after its roots take hold, farmers who lose an orchard may not have the money or time to recover.

The latest threat is an invasive fly called spotted wing drosophila that flew into Michigan in 2010 and decimated 21 percent of the state’s 2016 cherry crops.

The tiny Southeast Asian fruit fly was first detected in California in 2008 and was so pervasive that “eradication was deemed impossible by the California Department of Food and Agriculture,” according to researchers from the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California.

The flies lay eggs underneath a fruit’s skin, meaning farmers can’t tell their cherries have been infected until it’s too late. “That insect is a game changer,” Iezzoni said.

This summer, MSU researchers received $300,000 in grants to look into potential ways to combat the invasive species.

While there’s not much researchers can do to make cherries resistant, Iezzoni said she is trying to develop cross-breeds that are ready to pick earlier in the year so there’s less time for the grain-sized flies to lay eggs.

Researcher Amy Iezzoni talks about developing pest-, freeze- and drought-resistant varieties of cherries at the orchard in Clarksville.

Her research on bloom times with different cherry varieties could also help reduce damage from frosts.

“Clearly, if they had a diversity of varieties in 2012 and 2002, we wouldn’t have lost such a huge percent,” Iezzoni said, referring to the prior record low for tart cherry production set 15 years ago during another early spring.

Iezzoni is trying to fight the varied threats by adding diversity to what is an American tart cherry monoculture. Nearly every tart cherry grown on U.S. soil is a Montmorency cherry — a variety brought over from France by early settlers.

But other kinds of cherries Iezzoni has developed, such as the Balaton cherry — originally called the Újfehértói Fürtös in Hungary — haven’t caught on with many consumers or growers. So farmers still are relying on Montmorency cherries and betting their crops on the whims of the weather.

Balaton and other cherry varieties could help protect against losses from frosts, Iezzoni and other experts said. They are also much sweeter than the traditional tart cherries, so much so that some Michigan farmers sell them on the fresh market rather than for processing.

The problem is they don’t yield as much fruit as Montmorency trees. So it’s not as profitable to most tart cherry farmers, who grow primarily for food processing, said Korson of the Cherry Marketing Institute.

A new Iezzoni project would dwarf cherry trees but potentially boost profits.

Smaller roots mean smaller trees, which means cherries would be ready for harvest three years sooner.

An average mature orchard produces about 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of tart cherries per acre, Perry said. It takes six to seven years for the orchard to reach maturity. But new trees with Iezzoni’s dwarf root stalks could be harvested three to four years earlier than a standard orchard, meaning three to four extra years of profit, he said.

Smaller trees could also allow farmers to use faster machinery to grab cherries at a quicker pace, said Ronald Perry, a Michigan State University horticulture professor who works with Iezzoni.

Farmers could harvest with a continuously running machine similar to what’s used for picking berries. It would be an improvement over the standard trunk-shaking machine that spends 30-40 seconds on each tart cherry tree, Perry said.

“It’ll take years for the growers to transition over,” he said. But when they do, it could be a boon for the industry.

“There are faculty at MSU who are working on those machines that derive from the blueberry industry,” MSU’s Baird said. “… It is a challenge to predict, but it’s clear it’ll be an advantage and really a necessity for the industry to remain financially competitive.”

Fighting threats consumes much of her time, but Iezzoni seems to get most excited about the fruit of her labors — the pure joy of eating cherries.

She holds up a cluster of “Jubileum,” a cross between tart and sweet cherries.

“This one, in a cherry sauce, hardly any sugar,” Iezzoni said with a smile, “is just dynamite.”