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Cherry harvest is nearly complete in northwest Michigan, one of the state's three key growing areas.
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SAUGATUCK, MI -- The specter of 2012 still casts a long, dark shadow over Michigan's tree fruit landscape, but for hundreds of west-coast cherry growers, that too-recent memory is making even an average year feel like a win. The families who produce one of the state's most distinctive crops--tart or sweet--will soon close the books on 2014 with a satisfied smile.

Up and down the Lower Peninsula's western shoreline, Michigan's cherry-growing region separates neatly into three segments: the northwest hugs Grand Traverse Bay; the west-central stretches from Ludington south through Shelby; and the southwest picks up near Saugatuck and fades near Benton Harbor.

Harvest is complete in the southwest and west-central regions, where yields totaled 18.6 million and 44.7 million pounds, respectively. Total production in the northwest, where harvest will be done in another week, is estimated to top 102 million pounds.

"The quality in the west-central and the northwest this year is fantastic," said Phil Korson, president and managing director of the Michigan Cherry Committee. "It's probably the best quality I've seen in a long, long, long time--maybe the best ever."


Korson keeps keen watch over the crop statewide, and vividly recalls the day a midsummer storm wrought havoc in southwestern orchards--because it also wrought havoc with his work travel.

"That storm came through in the afternoon of June 30 and into the morning of July 1," Korson said, adding that it resulted in the cancellation of a flight he was to take across the lake to Wisconsin. "We were 10 days from harvest and got winds of more than 70 miles per hour."

Orchards in northern Berrien County between Benton Harbor and Watervliet were hardest hit, with winds battering orchards to varying degrees. Soft, ripe fruit was buffeted for hours, the tender cherries knocking into each other only days from harvest.

"A lot of that crop was diverted to juice production," Korson said, referring to the low rung of procession options that fetches growers a lower price--lower than they'd prefer but far better than none at all. "Growers down there will tell you: three years ago we didn't have a juice market, but now we do. So while it's never a positive to have that much damaged fruit, having a market that can absorb that fruit is a great thing."


"The fruit from here in the west-central region was probably the nicest looking fruit we've seen--it's been fantastic," said Michael DeRuiter, who raises tart cherries near Hart in Oceana County, and runs a processing operation that takes in fruit from all three growing areas.

"Our production is definitely down from last year--maybe two-thirds of average--thanks to a pair of bad frosts back in spring," DeRuiter said. "They weren't super cold, though, so the damage was spotty."

He said orchard blocks on opposite sides of the same hill or ridge this year produced notably different yields, adding that the low spots where cold air settles saw the worst damage. Even so, the damage was nothing compared to what he saw in 2012, when repeated April freezes followed an early March thaw, causing almost total devastation the state's entire tree fruit industry.


In the northwest region, Greg Shooks estimates this year's crop to be about 70 to 75 percent of last year's--a satisfying if not bumper crop at the century-old family farm in northern Antrim County.

"This is the first year we got into the tarts before the sweets. The tarts' maturity level just got ahead of the sweets," Shooks said as one of his two harvesting crews made its way through a hilltop orchard overlooking the town of Central Lake. "We knew the fruit would come, we just had to be patient. We're actually quite delighted with the crop, given the delayed spring and the amount of water we saw earlier in the season."

Harvest began in mid-July at Shooks' and took almost four weeks to wrap up.

Production varies from one site to the next, but in this harvesting block Shooks' family calls the "tower orchard," each of the 648 Montmorency tart cherry trees were dropping about 100 pounds of fruit onto the shaker tarps.

Each steel harvest tank carries approximately 1,100 pounds of cherries from the orchard to the cooling pad for a two-hour bath before they're trucked to the processor. All of Shooks' 200 acres of cherries go to processing facilities for pitting, freezing, chopping or juicing.

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