The national Cherry Festival is underway this week.
But underneath the celebration many in the industry are hurting. And it may take some fruit growers several years to bounce back from the worst agricultural disaster to hit Michigan in more than fifty years.
The Big 2002 Freeze
Both the state and federal governments have put up safety nets for fruit growers in the form of low interest loans.
The last time the state geared up this kind of effort was ten years ago. That was when a major spring freeze wiped out tart cherries.
“We definitely participated in that’” says Gary Bardenhagen. “And that helped immensely.” He grows cherries in Leelanau County.
This year’s freeze wiped out not only most cherries but many other tree fruits too. The loans will help growers dig out of the hole when there is no fruit to sell later in the year.
“Which hopefully we can recover from in the next few years and everything will be fine’” Bardenhagen says. “But if you have a huge interest burden on top of the debt that definitely makes recovery slower.”
A study by Michigan State pegs this year’s losses statewide at half-a-billion dollars when you factor in all the businesses that supply agriculture.
Difference Between Fed and State
The federal loan program is for growers only. But the state loans include companies that freeze, dry and package the fruit as well.
And Bob Boehm of Michigan Farm Bureau says that’s important.
“If we aren’t providing a safety net and a lifeline to processors, shippers and handlers, we won’t have a market for our crops next year,” Boehm says.
The federal loans offer a little more money per farmer but at a higher interest rate than the state loans. Another key difference is the state program allows a two year grace period before the first payment is due.
“These growers and processors are going to have very little crop to market for twelve to fourteen to sixteen months,” says the Farm Bureau’s Boehm.
Disaster Few Can See
Those in the fruit industry see this year as a slow moving disaster. There are no roofs blown off or houses burned down to draw attention.
At this time of year, the Great Lakes Packing plant near Kewadin would be hopping. Growers trucking would be trucking in cherries and crews zipping around on fork lifts with pallets loaded with fruit.
Now, it’s eerily quiet. Manager Norm Veliquette compares it to an auto plant without any steel. “There’s just no need for containers or wrapping material or pallets or rental equipment or labor.”
Veliquette is considering a low interest loan from the state. But it’s not a snap decision. Property has to be put up as collateral and the money still has to be paid back.
“In many cases these low interest loans will be added on to existing loans. And the debt burden will be heavy,” Veliquette says.
Lost Shelf Space
Not all growers or processors are going to need help.
Richard Friske in Antrim County has already decided his business won’t need one of the loans. He says Friske Orchards had an excellent year last year.
And, unlike a lot of other growers, he has a good apple crop this year. With a statewide shortage, that will mean top prices for his fruit. So he doesn’t anticipate a cash flow problem.
But he expects to see his most popular product disappear from store shelves. It’s a small package of flash frozen, pitted tart cherries just right for making one pie.
“All of the grocery chains that we supply we’ve had to tell them that we just don’t have any more’” Friske says. “So that will be off the shelves probably for about a year. If they haven’t run out yet they will be very soon.”
Growers and processors are worried about losing market share and shelf space. But there’s no way around it.
Cherry growers nationwide will be hard pressed to bring in a fraction of a typical harvest. And that means companies that buy cherries will either find another fruit to substitute or drop some products.
Richard Friske supplies Meijer and Spartan stores in a number of states. He says his buyers understand what’s been happening this year. And he’s pretty confident the markets will come back.
“I think we happen to have enough of a well-established and highly demanded product that we’ll be able to get them back on the shelves as soon as they’re available. Of course everyone at this point expects fully a great crop next year. Who knows?”
Applications for loans aren’t due for several months.