TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Northern Michigan farmers who grow four-fifths of the nation’s tart cherry crop have started to report serious damage from a hard freeze that followed March’s record-setting heat wave.
The week of mid-March warmth triggered widespread budding, but the more typical cold weather returned, with temperatures dropping into the 20s on March 25.
“I had a grower tell me the other day that we just can’t seem to catch a break this year,” said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.
“When we warm up and we go into the bloom at the end of March, you know you’re setting yourself up for a lot of challenges.”
But she did say some growers were harder hit than others.
Dave Alpers, a longtime Leelanau County fruit farmer, has 550 acres of tart cherries and 100 acres of sweet cherries in Leland and Suttons Bay townships, about 15 miles north of Traverse City.
“Right now, at this point in time, there’s significant damage out there,” Mr. Alpers told the Traverse City Record-Eagle for a story Saturday. “There’s probably 80-90 percent bud kill on [tart] cherries. There’s also more kills on apples than I thought. There’s probably 40 to 60 percent bud kill on apples.
“It’s huge. I’ve been from Northport to Empire in orchards the last couple of weeks and it’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you’re at,” Mr. Alpers said.
Michigan is the nation’s top producer of tart cherries, which are used in pie filling and other products.
Orchards in a five-county section of the northwestern Lower Peninsula account for about 80 percent of the U.S. crop — about 180 million pounds a year.
Ms. Rothwell said the blossoms aren’t the only things that have suffered because of the weather.
Bees are not flying, she said. “I was out in orchards all day [Friday] ... and I saw maybe eight bees in like eight hours.”
If the early bloom is a sign of lasting change, the cherry industry may need to adapt, Ms. Rothwell said.
“I think it’s important to monitor those trends,” she said. “That once-in-a-lifetime thing has happened two times” since 2002.