Leelanau News and Events

The Pits: Local Cherry Farmers Expecting Worst Year Since 2012

By Craig Manning | July 7, 2021

The embattled local cherry industry will have to wait at least another year for good news and good fortune. After years of contending with bad weather, short crops, low cherry pricing, foreign competitors, and invasive pests, cherry farms are facing more disappointment in 2021 after unpredictable spring weather fluctuations wiped out huge segments of the crop. Even worse, farmers say there’s no excess inventory from last year to fall back on, which could affect Michigan’s ability to play its usual role as one of the key players in the domestic cherry market.

“This has certainly been a year of extremes,” says Jim Nugent of Sunblossom Farms in Suttons Bay. “It got very warm early, and that advanced the buds well ahead of normal. And then we had some very cold weather, which wasn't good because the buds were advanced enough to be susceptible to the cold damage. So that did hurt the crop very substantially. Then we got pretty cold when we were about to bloom time on sweet cherries, so pollination wasn't great. And since then we got really warm again and we were real dry – until it started to rain, and then it kept raining.”

Those factors together will likely lead to smaller-than-average crops on both the tart and sweet cherry side. Jim Bardenhagen of Bardenhagen Farms tells the Leelanau Ticker he expects most farms in the area will end up with about “20-25 percent” of a tart crop this year, based on comparing actual harvestable cherries to optimal growth potential.

Bardenhagen is dealing with even worse numbers on his sweet cherries. “I’d say we have probably an eighth of a crop,” he says, noting that the crop might not even be worth harvesting this year. Some farms are reporting slightly better fortunes on that front.

“We are hearing from growers that the tart harvest is way down, but the sweet cherry harvest should be successful across the region,” says Phil Hallstedt of Hallstedt Homestead Cherries. Hallstedt and his wife focus specifically on sweet, growing eight different varieties on their U-Pick cherry farm in Northport. “All but one of our eight sweet cherry varieties appear to be thriving, even with the heat. The high heat is not good for the fruit or the trees, but our irrigation has been running at record levels to keep the soil moist.”

The biggest culprit behind the short crop this year was the extreme ping-ponging of early spring temperatures. Northern Michigan recorded some of its hottest early April weather on record this year, with temps soaring into the low 80s during the second weekend of the month. Just a few weeks later, though, overnight temperatures were dipping into the mid-20s. Nugent and Bardenhagen both tell tales of trying to get their crops through those cold nights unscathed by using wind machines to pull cold air down from the hills (where most of the cherry trees sit) and into the valleys.

“Most frosty nights in spring, we get what we call an inversion of the air,” Nugent explains. “During the day, when the wind is blowing, if you got higher in the elevation, the temperature gets colder and colder. But on a calm night, when there's no clouds to trap the heat, that cold air aloft is actually denser than the warm air underneath it – and hence, heavier. So when the wind quits blowing, and there's no clouds to trap it, the warm, light air underneath radiates up and the cold air flows down. That's why we plant the cherries on the hills and not in the valleys, because the valleys are pockets where that frost builds up. So what we do with a wind machine is try to pull that cold air down out of the orchard and pull in warmer air.”

Cherry farmers in northern Michigan try this tactic at least a few times every spring to navigate colder nights. It wasn’t as effective in 2021 because some of the coldest, frostiest nights came with an added challenge: wind. Windy frosts, while relatively rare in the spring according to Bardenhagen, effectively render wind machines useless – and tear through cherry crops with devastating results.

The cherries that survived later had to contend with periods of sustained rain in the final weeks of June, which did even more damage. Nugent notes that sweet cherries are especially susceptible to cracking from high moisture levels. Water enters the cherries through both the roots of the trees and the skin of the fruit, which in turn leads to considerable expansion in size.

He also knows of several local farmers who got hit by hail as part of June’s lengthy streak of storms, which caused only more grief. “Hail typically is the kind of thing that can just slam one grower and miss their neighbor altogether,” he says. “So rarely does hail have a large overall impact on the amount of crop of fruit that's harvested, because it's too localized. But it sure can be tough on the growers that get it.”

The outcome of all these factors is likely to be one of northern Michigan’s leanest cherry years in recent memory. Both Bardenhagen and Nugent compare it to 2012 – a year that saw an even earlier spring warmup. The weather that year had some cherry trees blooming as early as March, leaving them vulnerable to two solid months of wind and frost risks. Bardenhagen recalls 2012 as “a disaster,” while Nugent says “there was almost nothing left [of the crop]” by the time summer finally arrived.

The good news is that Nugent thinks the crop loss this year isn’t nearly as extreme as it was in 2012. The bad news is that local farmers don’t have big residual inventories of tart cherries from past years to rely on as a backup plan, which will hurt the local cherry economy substantially.

“We had a small tart cherry crop last year, and this year it’s going to be smaller still,” Nugent concludes. “That’s not what we needed. Last year, with the small crop, we at least had a pretty significant carryover of inventory coming into the year, so that kept the markets pretty well-supplied. But this year, we came in having used all that inventory up because of the small crop in 2020. So it was not a good year to have a small crop, and it just means that we're pretty short on supplies for the market.”

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