Tart cherry crop a disaster after Michigan freeze

by Ron Sterk
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The nation’s 2012 tart cherry crop is being viewed as a disaster after freezing temperatures hit blooming trees in Michigan during April. Some estimate this year’s crop down as much as 75% from 2011 and the smallest since 2002.

The U.S. tart cherry crop pales in size compared with many other deciduous fruits, even equal only to about half the size of the sweet cherry crop. The crop is almost entirely processed — canned, dried, frozen and juiced. Although small in volume, tart cherries have been gaining in popularity the past few years because of perceived health benefits from their high antioxidant content, which some claim helps fight everything from cancer to heart disease to sore throats and headaches. Some have labeled tart cherries “America’s super fruit.”

But this year the small, dark red fruit, also called sour cherries, pie cherries and red cherries, will be in tight supply, although prices may well move into the “super” category.

Mild weather across much of the country, including Michigan, pushed fruit trees into early bloom, mostly by two to three weeks by as much as a month in some areas. A hard freeze followed when many fruit trees were near full bloom and in their most vulnerable stage.

“Unusually high temperatures during most of March caused fruit development to be about one month ahead of normal,” the Michigan field office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its April 9 Michigan Crop Weather report. “The return of seasonable weather the past two weeks has resulted in widespread freeze damage. Tart cherries were in bloom.”

Sweet cherries, peaches, apples, apricots, strawberries and grapes, all developing ahead of average, also suffered varying degrees of damage.

As time passed, state field office reports tracked evidence of the damage to Michigan’s fruit industry.
April 17: “There has been widespread tart cherry damage across the state.”

April 23: “Phenology moved

slowly, and overnight temperatures in the twenties caused more frost damage.”

April 30: “Freeze damage to most fruit crops became more evident. The tart cherry crop is likely to be greatly reduced. One grower reported 80% to 90% bud kill in areas of the northwest.”

May 7: “Continual frosts throughout April have caused the worst weather damage to fruit in the state in the past half century. This has been compounded by poor pollination conditions for flowers that were still viable. The tart cherry crop will be very small; many growers will not have enough production to justify harvesting. The (apple) crop will be well below average in size. Sweet cherries were also scarce. The juice grape crop in the southwest has very little potential. Most peach varieties have had substantial freeze damage. The pear and plum crops will be small.”

May 14: “Many (apple) or-chards have little or no fruit. Viable tart cherries are rare.”

Part of the problem is tart cherry production is highly concentrated in one state — Michigan, which accounts for about 70% to 80% of the total U.S. crop in any given year, and an average of 76% over the past five years. Even more critical, much of the production comes from just five counties in northwest Michigan.

U.S. tart cherry production was forecast at 266.1 million lbs in 2011, up 75.5 million lbs, or 40%, from 2010. Michigan outturn last year was forecast at 210 million lbs, equal to 79% of the nation’s total, up 75 million lbs, or 56%, from 2010, and accounting for nearly all of the U.S. increase. The 2010 crop in Michigan and the United States was the lowest since 2002, which has many similarities to 2012.

“U.S. tart cherry production is forecast at 59.1 million lbs, down 84% from 2001,” the U.S.D.A. said in its July 1, 2002, Cherry Production report. “This is the lowest since 1943 when 40.8 million lbs were produced. Michigan, normally the largest producing state, expects a crop of 15 million lbs, down 95% from last year. Unusual spring weather devastated the Michigan tart cherry crop. The state received three days of temperatures above 80 degrees in mid-April which pushed the trees into budding.”
The 2002 report then cited a series of freezes across Michigan.

One key difference is pro-duction in 2002 was coming off a large crop in 2001 of 369.3 million lbs (297 million lbs in Michigan), the highest since 1995. Stocks of frozen ripe tart pitted cherries on March 31, 2002, were 105,174,000 lbs, up 19% from a year earlier. This year stocks were 54,216,000 lbs, down 24% from March 31, 2011.

In addition to its top ranking in tart cherries, Michigan also is the largest producer of blueberries and third largest of apples.

The U.S.D.A. will release its annual Cherry Production report on June 28 with sweet and tart cherry crop forecasts and revised 2011 data. From that the industry will have a better idea of ultimate crop size and potential impact on prices. The tart cherry harvest usually occurs in July.
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