Traverse City's annual Cherry Fest canceled this year due to COVID-19

Sweet cherries at the 89th National Cherry Festival in July 2014.

Here's another way the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving a bad taste in Michiganians' mouths: This year's National Cherry Festival in Traverse City has been canceled until next year.

Organizers announced Thursday they have decided to postpone the annual fruit fete until July 3-10, 2021. The event that kicks off the tart cherry harvest typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to northern Michigan every year.

The 93rd National Cherry Festival Junior Royale Parade winds through downtown Traverse City last year.

“There have been few times in our near 100-year history that the National Cherry Festival has not come together to put on a wonderful celebration of cherries, and in those rare instances it was always to support the community and protect the region," Kat Paye, National Cherry Festival executive director, said in a statement.

"In these unprecedented times, it is for those same reasons, and with heavy hearts, the decision has been made to postpone the National Cherry Festival to July 3rd-10th, 2021.”

Michigan produces more than two-thirds of the United States' tart cherries, which are used in pies, beverages, ice cream and more. It produced 208 million pounds of cherries last year. Most are grown in and around Traverse City, which has become known as the "Cherry Capital of the World."

The first priority of the festival's organizers is the safety and health of their community, guests, volunteers and staff, Paye said.

"We did not make this decision lightly," she wrote. "At each and every step we took into account not only the time and effort that goes into planning this festival, but also the impact on the economy of our area. However, with the uncertainty of the times, we are unable to be fully confident in the fact that it will be safe to gather and celebrate the first week of July 2020."

Officials said they will release information in the coming days about ticket purchases already made for this year's festival or registration for one of the event's four foot races.

Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, said the postponement hurts so much because the festival is not only a beloved national tradition, it’s a key economic driver for the region.

"It’s painful to see organizers cancel the 2020 event, but prioritizing the health and safety of festival goers, volunteers and the community is the honorable thing to do," he said in a statement. "We appreciate the support of local community leaders and organizations, with this difficult decision. We know that it is the correct decision for the community and to ensure the celebration of cherries can go on for the next 100 years."

The cancellation of the national promotional event for tart cherries is another setback for many tart cherry growers who have faced challenges from low-priced tart cherry product imports from Turkey. Some even have ended their cherry operations.

"It's more opportunities lost to convey the benefits of tart cherries to a lot more potential customers," said Nels Veliquette, a cherry grower whose Traverse City-based Shoreline Fruit LLC cherry processing business was sponsoring the festival. "The cherry festival works really well as a showcase for the cherry industry.

"And so in a year like this, when we could use all the help we can get, it’s just one of those standards we take for granted. We assume that everybody's going to come here, everybody's going to spend money, everybody's going to learn more about cherries and buy their products while they’re here."

Spectators line the streets of downtown Traverse City last July for the National Cherry Festival Junior Royale Parade.

Rival cherry processors in Michigan and Utah last year joined forces to petition for tariffs on Turkish imports that they say are subsidized and dumped into the United States. But the U.S. International Trade Commission reversed preliminary tariffs on the imports, determining domestic producers are not materially injured by them.

"The cherry festival has been an unbelievably beneficial and huge promotion and celebration," said Mike DeRuiter, a cherry grower in Hart and member of Traverse City's Cherry Central Cooperative. "Everyone is doing everything they can in terms of marketing and promotion. It's another hit to the industry.

"Most farmers understand it. You have to protect the public. It's disappointing but understandable."