Every July since 1926, Traverse City, Mich., has hosted a national cherry festival. The event attracts tourists to the city, which in turn calls itself “The Cherry Capital of the World,” an epithet that might seem hyperbolic if Michigan didn’t grow nearly 75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries. Also known as sour or “pie cherries,” tart cherries are bright red fruit that are traditionally frozen and processed. Most sweet cherries, on the other hand, are eaten fresh and grown in Western states.
This year it’s looking unlikely that the Cherry Festival will feature any Michigan cherries. Two 80-degree weeks in March caused blossoms to bud early, before the Midwestern winter returned with its standard frosty, below-freezing temperatures. Though many growers are still a few weeks from knowing the full extent of the weather damage, they’re looking at what could be a total loss.
Michigan’s $17 billion tourism industry will find ways around the worst of this weather-induced crisis. The National Cherry Festival’s organizers have already made plans to order the fruit from Yakima, Wash., and Cherry Republic, a Michigan-based store offering products based around cherries, went all the way to Poland to build this year’s inventory. But for growers and farmworkers who depend on summer orchard crops, a year like this means a lot more than a change in sales strategy — it’s a huge loss of income.
King Orchards is one of many family farms affected by the weather. The owner, John King, isn’t optimistic. “This year we don’t know if we’ll have any fruit at all,” he says. King explains that while insurance is available through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program to subsidize his failed apple harvest, there is no such thing for his farm’s cherries. “An insurance payment would be less than our labor bill for the year,” he said. With a typical profit margin of 10-20 percent, it could take growers like King three to five years to recover.
While the farmers get most of the attention in the event of a failed harvest, it’s the agricultural workers who are hurt the most. A recent study by Michigan State University [PDF] showed that agriculture brings $91 billion and 923,000 jobs into the state. Michigan may be frequently cited as an example of the nation’s poor economy, but its agricultural industry, responsible for a quarter of all state income, does well when the weather cooperates.
Unfortunately for fruit-lovers, Michigan cherries are not going to be the only affected crops this year. This past March, residents of the entire Great Lakes Basin area were trying to remember how to put on shorts and sunscreen before buttoning back up in late April. Low fruit yields for New York, Pennsylvania, and Ontario are almost certain. Unseasonable weather, however nice for our tans, is rarely good for our farms. As John King said, “We had two weeks of 85-degree weather. That should frighten anybody who likes food.”
A bad year is not unheard of in agriculture. When dealing with nature, any number of factors must be in place for fruit to grow — weather conditions, pollination, and proper pest control being among the most important. In fact, Michigan faced a similar occurrence as recently as 2002 — a warm spell that decimated the tart cherry crop but left other survivors behind. But this year’s prolonged good weather is estimated to damage 50 to 90 percent of all orchard crops.
While one year of unseasonable weather could be blamed on Mother Nature’s strange whims, two of them occurring within a decade is cause for concern. If these warm springs do prove to be the start of a pattern, it could cause spiraling consequences for our food supply. In the last decade, there has been a lot of interest in funding climate-based research into the cherry industry — tart cherries in particular, since they tend to be most sensitive to weather variations. The Pileus Project and Climark started in 2003 and 2009 respectively, and both are working to study the current and potential effects of climate change on Michigan cherry production. The energy and financial backing behind such projects implies a certain amount of worry should weather events like this year’s become commonplace. Orchard crops take years to mature and require a much longer investment than row crops, or annual agricultural products like corn, which are planted every year and mature in a matter of months. Depending on the findings of these studies, growers and others relying on the cherry industry for their livelihoods may start replacing their orchards with more resilient crops.
In an interview with Great Lakes Echo, Roy Black, agricultural economist, said, “From [the grower’s] point of view, this has not been a very profitable industry for quite a while. So the bigger picture is, is this industry at a point where we ought to be reinvesting?” In other words, if this unpredictable weather keeps up, we may need to name a new Cherry Capital of the World.