Cautiously optimistic, cherry growers and their crops have emerged from months of harsh weather none the worse for wear.
The cherries – expected late July – “came out of dormancy really slow,” meaning less risk of frost damage, said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center.
“We always say, ‘Oh, it’s a normal year,’ but I don’t know if we know what normal is anymore,” Rothwell said.
She thinks this year’s tart cherry crop will be about 75 percent of the 2013 harvest, which was close to 218 million pounds, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Growers won’t know how much cherries will sell for until they actually drop them off at a processing plant.
Sweet cherries will have a really good crop, Rothwell said. There are basically four types of sweet cherries grown in the region – Emperor Francis, Ulster, a new variety called Regina and Attika. Emperor Francis is the most popular because it’s used mainly for maraschino cherries.
The only problem that could possibly happen to the sweets at this point is cracking, Rothwell said. If there’s too much rain around harvest, the cherries can split.
Michigan grows 75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries, and this crop, though slightly behind schedule, is expected to be good as well.
Montmorency cherries dominate the local tart market, although some Balafons are grown here.
There are about 32,000 acres of tart cherries being grown in Michigan and about 8,000 acres of sweets. The amount has stayed steady, Rothwell said, even though some orchards on the Old Mission Peninsula have been replaced by vineyards.
She said southwest Lower Michigan has been planting more cherry trees, which helps.
And, while the cherry crop did fine over the nasty winter, some apple trees didn’t survive.
“I always think of apples as being winterhardy,” Rothwell said. “They don’t look very good, but it’s not like it’s wiped out.”
‘RUBY RED GEMS’
One little cherry packs a big nutritional punch.
“I call them ‘ruby red gems,’” said Wendy Bazilian, a registered dietitian with the Cherry Marketing Institute. Tart cherries are full of potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber.
Better yet, they don’t have fat, cholesterol and they’re low in sodium, she said.
“Tart cherries are one of the few foods that has melatonin naturally,” she said. Melatonin won’t make you sleepy, but does help keep you asleep.
“There are less waking hours over the course of the night,” Bazilian said.
The Vitamin A, of which tart cherries have 19 times more than blueberries or strawberries, is especially good for eyes, skin and the immune system.
And recent research points toward tart cherries – whether dried, frozen, fresh or in juice – as a great tool for “precovery.”
Athletes getting ready for a marathon or a long bike ride, for instance, drink cherry juice a week before, the day of and the day after the event and have decreased soreness, Bazilian said.
She recommends eating or drinking “reasonable amounts” of cherries: a half-cup of juice, a quarter-cup dried cherries, or a cup of cherries.
“Mother Nature does a good job of giving us the nutrients we need in regular amounts of food,” she said.
And tart cherries have anthocyanins, a property that gives them their bright red color, but also may have health benefits as an antioxidant.
Bazilian recommends checking with a health professional or registered dietitian before using any supplements to take care of a medical condition, like gout or high cholesterol, even though research has shown that tart cherries can help in numerous ways, in any form.
And don’t forget good old sweet cherries. “There’s not as much research” on those, Bazilian said, but there’s a “definite overlap” in the nutritional benefits.
“They’re all in the family,” she said.