By Bob Allen
When you scoop up ice cream with cherries in it this summer or add dried cherries to your salad, chances are the fruit won’t be from Michigan. Or even from the United States. Extremely unusual weather this spring has crippled the state’s entire tree fruit industry. And the cherry industry is debating how much to rely on imports.
Crop either destroyed or utterly destroyed
The official estimate for the size of the cherry crop won’t be in for a few more weeks. But even the most optimistic projections for the amount of fruit is less than ten percent of what the state typically grows.
A bizarre stretch of hot weather in early March woke trees up from winter dormancy. That was followed by more than a dozen nights of hard freezing temperatures. Tim Brian is president of Smeltzer Orchards in Benzie County. He thinks there will be entire orchards that won’t be harvested at all this year even if there is a scattering of fruit in them.
“With $4 fuel, even if there is only ten cherries on a tree that’s not going to be economically feasible to harvest. And chances are the birds will get that before anyone else does.”
Smeltzer’s has been in the business for well over a century. The company runs a medium sized processing plant that freezes and dries cherries. This spring, they are packing cherries are from Chile. Normally they would be Michigan cherries if not local.
Typically, a processor such as Smeltzer keeps a supply in the freezer. But the crop was modest the last two years and demand for cherries has been high. So the company sold most of what was in storage and now the cupboards are nearly bare. That’s why he’s scouring Europe too for tart cherries just to keep some of his workers busy and to keep supplying customers as best he can.
To import or not
Smeltzers has a big shipment coming in from Poland. Some of that Polish fruit will go to Cherry Republic. Based in Glen Arbor, the retailer has outlets in Traverse City, Charlevoix and Ann Arbor. It sells everything cherry from dried fruit to jams, salsas to wine. Owner Bob Sutherland was caught short when processors told him a couple of weeks ago there was a hold on what little supply is still in the freezers. But he was able to bid on some Polish cherries in time to gear up his summer production. And he’s kept his sense of humor.
“All four of our stores will be flying the Polish flag and our employees are going to be wearing the Polish emblem right on their shoulders.”
Sutherland thinks if the industry pulls together and keeps its head up it will weather this storm of bad luck.
“This is a 300 million dollar industry up in northern Michigan”, says Sutherland. “We don’t want it to shut down.”
But not everyone is ready to welcome imported fruit. The cherry industry nearly came to a standstill back in 2002 after a devastating spring freeze basically wiped out that year’s entire crop. Don Gregory says some weren’t eager to jump into the import market to bail out the industry back then. And some still aren’t.
“As growers we’ve always been afraid of imports. And boy we don’t want imports coming in and taking over our market.”
One reason growers are wary of imports is because some European countries subsidize their fruit industries. Gregory is an owner of one of the largest fruit orchards in the north. And he’s also part of one of the region’s biggest processors of dried and frozen cherries. He says the company hasn’t decided yet whether to go with imports this year.
But the choice is a difficult one because one of the lessons the industry has learned since 2002 is that it is hard to get market share back once you lose it. If buyers can’t get tart cherries they’ll move on to other products that have a more stable supply.
Whatever happens Don Gregory thinks one thing is pretty sure, there will be fewer cherry products on store shelves for years to come.
“Once you lose that shelf space it is really tough and expensive to get it back.”