Where Have All The Cherries Gone? (and Apples … and Peaches …)

Northern Michigan calls itself the Cherry Capital of the World and supplies most of the country’s tart cherries, but the state experienced a huge crop loss in 2012. This has been the worst year in recorded history for Michigan fruit. Statewide, more that 90 percent of the tart cherry crop was lost when freezing weather followed an unusually warm spring.

Northern Michigan is considered by many an ideal place for growing fruit. Located on the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, the surrounding Great Lakes and rolling hills help create a temperate climate.

Cherry trees remain dormant throughout winter until a spring warming wakes them up. That happened much earlier this year. Temperatures in March shattered records across the country, reaching the mid-80’s in Michigan that month – that’s nearly 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the state average. That pushed the trees to a development stage about 5.5 weeks ahead of normal. When temperatures dropped again, the trees’ early buds were vulnerable.  From late March through May, there were 15 to 20 nights in which temperatures fell below freezing. The cold snaps killed not only cherries, but also juice grapes, peaches and apples. Losses across the state are estimated at $210 million.

Each fall, thousands of people visit the local cider mills and orchards to drink cider, eat freshly baked donuts and pick apples. But this year, there is one thing missing: crops. Michigan will only produce about 3 million bushels of apples this year, compared to the 20 to 23 million produced during a normal season, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.

To survive the season, local orchards are cutting hours, planting different crops, and ordering apples from out-of-state farms for making cider. Pumpkins are being sold in place of apples. Many orchards have “Petting Zoos” with lambs, goats and other small animals to the delight of many children. Donuts and hot chocolate replace the cider and donuts.

Many of the growers have been in the business for several generations. Despite their historic losses, there is a common sentiment among the growers; this year’s crop devastation was out of their hands and the growing conditions eventually will improve. These orchards and farms did not become a fourth or fifth generation by not being able to survive a few bad years here in Michigan. They have learned to make the best of the situation.

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