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Trouble in cherry crop paradise. Michigan growers may have to leave nature's candy to rot

This year's plentiful cherry season could end up the pits for some Michigan farmers as a good portion of the crop might end up left on the ground due to a lack of demand for the tart fruit.

The state's cherry farmers say their bountiful crop comes as many of them are also struggling to find processors to pit their cherries amid an expedited timeline to get cherries shaken off trees.

Worsening matters, farmers are facing skyrocketing costs, a labor shortage and competitively priced imports, said Greg Williams, owner of Williams Orchards in Leelanau County, who added he may be forced to leave some of his crop in the fields if he can't find a processor to pit his cherries. He said that if the cherries remaining in the field aren't harvested within the next two weeks, they will spoil. 

"Well, I'm not happy about it," Williams said. "I've taken care of them and sprayed them, and pruned them and all of the necessary things to do. The biggest problem is we're just getting bombarded by cheap foreign imports coming into our country, so it makes it hard for the processors to actually turn a sustainable profit."

There are only so many pitters that can process the delicate crop in a reasonable time frame, he said. 

Whole lot of shaking going on

During a harvest, there is usually a week between when cherries are shaken from southwest Michigan and west-central Michigan, with another week from the start of west-central to northwest Michigan. However, there was only a short time frame this summer of a few days, said Michael DeRuiter, owner and operator of DeRuiter Farms, which is located in Hart on the state's west side.

DeRuiter cherry shaking in southwest Michigan started around July 6, around July 8 in the west-central area of the state, and around July 12 fruit in the northwest started to trickle in.  

"You essentially have a window where the three major zones in Michigan are shaken at the same time and everybody needs to get their crop off," DeRuiter said.

While DeRuiter Farms processes its own cherries, many farmers across the state are left to locate their own processors. For those who are unable to find a processor, DeRuiter said there is a good probability that fruit will be left to rot.

Odds stacked against

In northern Michigan, King Orchards is a first-generation, family-operated farm that has grown Montmorency tart cherries, Balaton cherries, black sweet cherries, apples, peaches, pears, apricots, plums and nectarines for more than 30 years.

As this farm transitions into its second generation of ownership within the King family, John King's daughter, Juliette King McAvoy, has stepped into the role of vice president of sales and marketing, while also serving as a board member on the Michigan Cherry Committee. 

Although King Orchards is vertically integrated — meaning they process their own fruit into products they market themselves — King McAvoy said vertically integrated farms are not exempt from the struggles other cherry farmers are experiencing statewide.

"We growers, we just haven't had a good break. Either we don't have cherries or they're not worth anything," she said. "When you factor in the rising cost of labor, of fuel, of capital investment, it has been increasingly difficult to continue growing these tart cherries."

Growers were optimistic about their crops and the prices they would get for their cherries this year after harvesting a small crop two years prior, King McAvoy said. 

"We realized as the season developed, the major processors, or one processor in particular, decided to reduce the amount of cherries that they were going to process,"  she said. "Being such a consolidated industry, it has a huge effect on the whole state because it just then meant that growers didn't have as many buyers of their cherries, and the price plunged."

King McAvoy said that if a processor does not accept cherries, there are no other options for the fruit. 

"The industry is incredibly vulnerable just because of the nature of the fruit ... it has to be processed right away," King McAvoy said. "Tart cherries are very perishable — they cannot be stored — so that makes us very vulnerable and (puts) us at the mercy of a processor."

"Growers really don't have any power because it's the end of July and you've got cherries on the tree. We're talking about millions and millions of pounds of cherries and there's nothing else to do with them if a processor won't take them."

Weather, labor impact fruit

This season is the first in three years that the state of Michigan has seen a good crop in terms of quality, said Julie Gordon, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute. She attributes this to warm spring temperatures and a lack of May frost. 

"We've never in the history of the Michigan cherry industry had back-to-back short crops like we did in 2020 and 2021, so it definitely makes you open your eyes to what's coming down the pipeline in the future with the weather patterns the way they are," Gordon said. 

Williams added this season's high temperatures advanced the cherry crops, and while the entire state's crops were ready to be picked at the same time, it was more cost-effective for processors to target growers in the central or southern part of the state where cherries are usually processed.

"They've got to haul it 250 miles, and that's a heck of a burden, where if somebody's got it closer, it makes it a lot more cost-effective to deliver the fruit," he said. 

The state of Michigan produced 96.6 million pounds of tart cherries in 2021, according to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. This was a 39% increase from the 69.3 million pounds produced in 2020. Although the season has not yet come to a close, the state is expected to produce 159.5 million pounds of tart cherries in 2022, the statistics service said.

With the entire country experiencing labor shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the cherry industry is no stranger to these challenges.

"Trying to get enough people on the processing plants to run full lines has become almost impossible for a lot of our processors. Even offering super high salaries, we just can't get the bodies in the plants that we need," Gordon said. 

"Tart cherries, in particular, are put in water right when they're harvested and they can't sit in tanks for days," she said. "They need to be processed within a certain amount of time, and our labor cycle has just really put a toll on our industry this year."

With competitively priced imports coming in from Turkey and Poland, growers fear they soon may be left to fend for themselves if they cannot keep up with the low prices that food companies are expecting, as companies do not prioritize locally grown produce, King McAvoy said. 

"They're not going to buy cherry products at twice what they're seeing imports at, so that situation is influencing the processors because they're deciding what are we going to invest in? What's our future in the tart cherry industry?" she said.

Nels Veliquette, 49, has been in the cherry farming business for years and he now is the vice president of his family's farm, Cherry Ke, in Kewadin.

Although his farm is also vertically integrated, he believes this year's crop is the perfect size for the demand of the United States, and imports are necessary in the current market as Americans consume more than 400 million pounds of cherries each year.

"We need every cherry that we can here in the U.S. this year to sustain those markets, whether they be in the pie fill, or the frozen form, or the dried form," Veliquette said. "I hope they all get packed. There's two sides in the cherry world — there's the growing side and the processing side — and there are a few areas where those are completely aligned, where the growers are also in charge of the processing.

"Last year, the crop was fairly small, so grower pricing was good. This year, the crop is more of a normal-sized crop, and so the processors are a little more cagey about what they want to pay."

While growers are rushing to get their cherries processed, they won't find out their profits for months, leaving growers to question if it's worth it to harvest and process the fruit, said King McAvoy. 

"The way the industry currently works, or has been working, is that processors get to not give a price until later," King McAvoy said. "Sometimes, we don't find out what we are getting paid until January following the season."

Following a season in 2012 where more than 90% of the tart cherry crop was lost due to frozen weather, cherry farmers are familiar with finding solutions to obstacles. 

DeRuiter said farmers always find a way to push through and avoid long-term ramifications for the next generation.

"I think growers are optimistic ... so to let one year get you down long-term is not how we're wired," DeRuiter said. "... Hopefully, the industry can figure something out, whether it's sales, whether it's marketing, whatever we need to do to try to figure this thing out so that way, long-term, the cherry industry can continue to prosper in the state of Michigan."