March 3, 2024

The Truth Behind the Cherries at the Nat'l Cherry Fest

Are they really from Traverse City?
By Ross Boissoneau | June 30, 2018

The Traverse City National Cherry Festival celebrates the cherries grown here, in the cherry capital of the world, right? So why, every Fourth of July week, do you hear at least a few festival-goers snipe, “These aren’t Traverse City cherries! They ship ’em in — from [Washington/China/Mexico/Mars!]”

The cherries featured at the National Cherry Festival are from the Traverse City region. At least partly. According to Maria Lammers of Gallagher’s Farm Market, the cherries for the first weekend actually come from (gasp!) the Grand Rapids area. That’s because the cherries three hours south of here are ripening by late June, while those in Grand Traverse and Leelanau County are a few days behind.

By the end of the week, local cherries are ripe and available at the Cherry Festival and across the area. “We look forward to having our own,” said Lammers.

That’s true, and that is almost always what happens at the festival. Lammers acknowledged that there was one Cherry Festival several years ago when cherries had to be imported from Washington because the crop had been completely decimated all across the state. But that’s the exception.

For this year’s Cherry Festival … ? No problem, though the April snows pushed the season back a bit. She’s confident the crop across the area will be a good one this year. “This year, spring was a little late, but we’ve caught up pretty close. We didn’t have a late frost, there was no damage. It’s been perfect weather for gardens, flowers, and cherries too,” Lammers said.

She said the first weekend is always the busiest for the festival, and that means there needs to be plenty of cherries on hand.

“The Blue Angels are here, the Fourth of July — we have between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds from Grand Rapids, then another 4 to 5,000 from around here.”

For Lammers, local cherries means from across northern Michigan, whether that’s Leelanau, Old Mission, or right next door. The orchard across the driveway from the Gallagher farm market on M-72, just west of Traverse City, is part of her family’s as well, though she admitted that the cherries east of there ripen before theirs do. As for theirs, “It will be ready for U-pick by the Fourth of July.”

Lammers has been the unofficial cherry wrangler for the National Cherry Festival for a number of years. She said National Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye began working with her in Paye’s previous role as operations director. “I’ve been there a long time. Kat went back and forth between us and another farmer” before finally handing the reins to Lammers.

So why are local cherries so popular? Lammers said there’s a lot of pride locally in being dubbed the cherry capital of the world. Plus the cherries from the region that make their way to the festival are fresh and juicy, as opposed to those that are trucked in from out West. “People look forward to our cherries. They know they’re fresh. They want to experience it. They just taste special.”

As for that one long-ago instance when the Cherry Festival was forced to use cherries from Washington? “Never again,” she said firmly. “We stay in Michigan.”

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