October 6, 2022

Cherry Capital of Nothing: Is northern Michigan at risk of losing its global cherry crown?

By Craig Manning | July 2, 2022

Traverse City has long been known as the “Cherry Capital of the World.” The first National Cherry Festival was hosted here in 1925—known at the time as “the Blessing of the Blossoms”—and the rest was history.

Nearly a century later, northern Michigan’s biggest tourist draw and largest annual event remains that same grand celebration of the cherry industry held each July. But have a conversation with a local cherry farmer and you’ll likely come away with a much different portrait of cherry commerce than the festival suggests. Behind the scenes, the local cherry industry is struggling to fight off a slew of threats—from climate change to invasive pests to competition from foreign growers—and those issues are making the practice of growing cherries here a challenging business proposition.

All these factors lead to a single pressing question: As farmers sell land or convert crops to make ends meet, could northern Michigan’s days as the Cherry Capital of the World be numbered?

The Best Place in the World (to Grow Cherries)
Local history indicates that the first cherry trees in the region were planted on Old Mission Peninsula in the 1850s. The trees flourished, and cherry orchards quickly became a common sight in northern Michigan. Over time, cherry farming became the area’s calling card, especially tart cherries. The commonly-cited statistic among locals is that the five-county Grand Traverse region (Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Antrim, Benzie, and Kalkaska) produces 100-120 million pounds of tart cherries each year, some 40-50 percent of the total domestic tart cherry crop.

Northern Michigan’s rise to titan-level status in the cherry industry wasn’t an accident, but rather the result of a confluence of favorable growing factors.

First, the proximity of Lake Michigan moderates temperatures in a way that is good for cherry growing. In an ideal season, the lake insulates local farms from quick spring warm-ups, scorching summer days, and early fall frosts—all of which can damage cherry trees, blossoms, or fruit.

Second, northern Michigan’s lightweight, sandy soils can deliver water to a cherry tree’s roots without saturating them. Cherry trees don’t do well with wet feet, which means they struggle in dense or clay-heavy soils, but are right at home in sandy dirt.

Third, the rolling hills that dominate much of the region’s topography keep cooler temperatures closer to sea level and allow warmer and more temperate climates at the tops of hills. Cherry orchards thrive at these higher elevations.

According to Isaiah Wunsch, a sixth-generation farmer who serves as CEO for the Old Mission-based Wunsch Farms, those favorable factors have persisted through the past 170 years.

“Tart cherries still do really well up here,” Wunsch says. “We probably have the best climate for growing tart cherries in North America, if not in the world.”

A Multitude of Challenges
But favorable climate and topography aren’t everything. Recently, multiple roadblocks have been conspiring to make cherry farming a challenging and largely unprofitable exploit for local growers. Climate change is causing more erratic weather in the spring and fall, which can devastate local cherry crops. Invasive species like the spotted wing drosophila are attacking and damaging fruit while it’s still on the tree. Finally, cherry products flooding into the domestic market from foreign countries are undercutting domestic price points and making it difficult for farmers to turn a profit.

At King Orchards in Central Lake, volatile spring weather—including late-spring frosts and heavy rain events—has led to four cherry crop failures in the last 20 years. The most recent of those occurred in 2021 and left King Orchards with less than 10 percent of a crop. The second most recent was 2020, when the total cherry harvest was around 25 percent of what it should have been.

According to Juliette King-McAvoy, who serves as VP of sales and marketing for King Orchards, there are lifelines that can help farmers in these types of situations. Crop insurance, for instance, is a must-have for local cherry growers and can mean the difference between surviving a crop failure and facing bankruptcy. “But crop insurance does not make us whole,” King-McAvoy says. “With so many years of making claims, the basis [of the insurance policy] starts to decline. So, depending on crop insurance to get us by is not sustainable.”

When King Orchards has been able to deliver cherry products all the way to the marketplace, they’ve often been met by foreign competition. Countries like Turkey have cherry growing industries that are government-subsidized, which in turn allows them to sell their products into the U.S. market at artificially low prices.

This practice, referred to as “dumping,” is technically legal under World Trade Organization rules, but can be penalized if the importing country can prove that dumping practices have hurt their domestic producers. A few years ago, several local growers petitioned the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the International Trade Commission (ITC) to investigate Turkey for potentially harmful dumping practices.

In an initial 2019 ruling, the DOC ruled that Turkey was undercutting fair market value on dried cherries by as much as 648.35 percent and implemented a preliminary tariff to level the playing field. But the ITC overruled the DOC, deciding that the U.S. cherry industry had not been “materially injured” by Turkish dumping, and lifted the preliminary tariff on dried cherries. There are still small tariffs on some other processed cherry products, such as tart cherry juice. For now, though, the domestic growers have mostly lost the battle against foreign competitors.

“The imports have really hurt,” King-McAvoy says, pointing to the side of the King Orchards business that makes and sells tart cherry juice concentrate. “They’ve driven a lot of cherry products to the point where they’re priced below the cost of production. In 2019, the price of cherries was, on average, 15 to 16 cents a pound. Those are similar to prices we saw in the 1980s.”

Looking for Silver Linings
Not everything is cloudy for local cherry farmers. For one thing, after a disastrous year in 2021 and a bad one in 2020, growers across the board are predicting bigger, better crops in 2022. Wunsch says this spring has been kind to cherries, with good pollination, a slow and steady post-winter warm-up, and a “pretty much unbroken cycle, where we’ll have five to six days of nice, temperate weather interspersed with good rain events.” Those growing conditions are leading to what Wunsch thinks will be “a slightly-above-average cherry crop.”

There is also lots of opportunity for farms to diversify, which many cherry growers are doing to protect themselves from the volatility of the tart cherry market. For instance, in addition to cherries, King Orchards grows strawberries, raspberries, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, and apples. Wunsch Farms, meanwhile, has pivoted away from tart cherries almost entirely, opting instead for sweet cherries and fresh apples. The fresh produce market, Wunsch says, is more stable and less vulnerable to foreign importers than processed fruit, which is where much of the demand for tart cherries lies.

“We’ve bought about 160 acres in the last seven years from farmers who had worked with us to get their farms ready to transition over to fresh sweet cherries,” Wunsch says. “We’re also just wrapping up the planting of about 40 acres of new fresh apples and fresh sweet cherries. So there are definitely examples of farms on Old Mission that have diversified into other tree fruit crops, and those farms are not only maintaining acreage that they currently have, but are also expanding to encompass new land, including land sold by some retiring farmers.”

One Old Mission farmer eyeing retirement is Dan Fouch. A lifelong fruit grower, Fouch for years owned 126 acres along Center, Smokey Hollow, and Bluff roads. He and his wife MaryAnn sold off the majority of that land (about 120 acres) several years ago, to three different buyers. While Fouch is on the way out of the agriculture business—he’s managing the farm for now, but is planning to fully retire after another year or so—he still thinks a lot about the feasibility and profitability of cherry farming on Old Mission.

What makes the peninsula special, he says—and ditto for much of northern Michigan—is the beauty of the agricultural land. Fouch wants to see all that land preserved, even if it means selling his own land for less money.

“We had several cash offers for our property—probably for more money than we got—from people that wanted to buy it and develop it,” Fouch says. “But MaryAnn and I both really, really wanted to keep the land in ag.”

Even with that property staying in agriculture, though, Fouch doesn’t expect it to stay in cherry farming. Because of how desirable and expensive the land on Old Mission has become and because cherry pricing tends to be lackluster and unpredictable, Fouch is convinced that cherry farming on the peninsula will prove “prohibitive” for most growers going forward. His prediction? More and more of the farmland on Old Mission will shift toward other crop types or agribusiness ventures.

The Agribusiness Boom
The example of agribusiness on Old Mission that has proven to be most lucrative is also the obvious one: wineries. But there are other types of agribusiness that are thriving in northern Michigan, too. Both King Orchards and Hallstedt Homestead Cherries, a sweet cherry farm in Northport, have found success with the U-Pick model, particularly since the pandemic turned family-friendly outdoor activities into a highly in-demand niche.

The farmers at Hallstedt Homestead Cherries even strategize their crop diversification (they have 12 varieties of sweet cherries) to prolong their agritourism season. Each cherry variety blooms and comes to maturity at a slightly different time, which can help make U-Pick a summerlong proposition.

“People love the idea of being able to get in the orchard and spread out,” says Phil Hallstedt, who co-owns Hallstedt Homestead Cherries along with his wife Sarah. “Two years ago, as well as last year, we had a lot of visitors. Last year, the only negative was that the season started so early because we had such a hot spring. We had fruit here June 30, which is just crazy. So we opened for U-Pick July 5 and were done by July 30. We only really had three weeks of picking. This year, we hope to get more of a five-week time period. And we hope to get even more people out here to pick, because we’ve definitely got the fruit.”

The Verdict
All the diversification of local farmland bodes well for the long-term survival of northern Michigan agriculture. But what’s the ultimate answer to the question we posed at the beginning of this article, about the prognosis for the region’s tart cherry industry and its “Cherry Capital of the World” title? For Wunsch, the answer is mixed.

“I know a lot of tart cherries are still being planted in Leelanau and in the stretch between Traverse City and Elk Rapids,” he says. “I actually think Old Mission is kind of an anomaly, in that we’re seeing a lot of reduction in the acreage of those crops. So we will probably continue to see plenty of production of tart cherries in Antrim County and Leelanau and eastern Grand Traverse County. But it’s pretty tough now to grow a commodity crop like tart cherries on Old Mission, given the property values and the development pressure.”

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