Cherry Harvest Comes Quick For Local Growers

REGION – An early, warm spring put cherry harvest on the fast track for northern Michigan growers. "Dramatically warmer than average temperatures for a prolonged time brought an earlier harvest," says John Kroupa of Kroupa Orchards on Old Mission Peninsula. "Not just a freak day or two – we had a freak week or two."

"We anticipate harvest to be three weeks early this season compared to normal," says Brian Mitchell, who harvests several hundred acres of tart, light sweet and dark sweet cherries at Cherry Home Orchards in Northport.

The good news, says Patrick McGuire of Royal Farms in Ellsworth, is that harvest coming early won't affect the size and flavor of the fruit. "The season's length is the same, it just started sooner," he says. "Cool nights seem to sweeten fruit and we have certainly had a few of those."

For employment needs, an early harvest is actually a bonus, says Mitchell. "Last year we had a harvest about two weeks later then normal. Cherry Home utilizes mostly college-age and junior and senior high school students for help. We had a difficult time wrapping harvest up in time for college to start and high school fall sport practices begging."

Royal Farms, which depends partly on migrant staffing for harvest, may encounter more labor snags. "If the workers are already here in Michigan working another crop it should be fine, but if they have to come from Florida or another southern state, those seasons might not be done yet, and they will be late," says Sara McGuire, who co-operates the farm and market with her husband Patrick.

The early season should not change the cherries' price; however, this year's smaller crop most likely will cause a change in price -for the better.

Says Kroupa, "The trees came out of dormancy earlier, and as a result, got hit with a spring frost. The crop is reduced in all varieties, and this will increase the price we're paid." He is subject to the processors' pricing for those cherries he sells, but he also keeps a portion of Kroupa Orchards' annual harvest of 1 million pounds of tarts and 250,000 pounds of sweets for his sister business, Peninsula Cellars. Kroupa will use the cherries in several wines, including Hot Rod Cherry and Kroupa Orchards White Cherry.

But, adds Mitchell, coming off a high-volume crop for the tart cherries last year, inventory levels are really all over the map with the different processors throughout the state. "With this being a lower-volume harvest, pricing from processor to processor may have a higher volatility then the past several seasons."

Mitchell adds, "It my understanding that growers in Washington and Oregon are expecting earlier harvest schedules as well. This may give sweet cherries a longer run in the produce aisle. This may help Michigan growers from having West Coast fruit show up in Midwest and East Coast markets."

This fact will certainly be celebrated locally at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City July 3-10. The festival, which attracts over 500,000 visitors over eight days, has depended on out-of-state fruit when the Northern Michigan harvest does not mesh with the festival dates. Says festival media relations director Susan Wilcox Olson, "We're thrilled always to have local fruit at the National Cherry Festival, but sometimes mother nature will determine otherwise. Visitors can find local produce at the National Cherry Festival's Farm Market Tent at the Open Space and will also see young entrepreneurs selling local fruit along the parade routes."

Adds Olson, "We want to support our local growers and encourage visitors to stop by and support the local farm stands as well."

This includes Royal Farms market on U.S. 31's fruit-stand-row. "Of course I hope it will mean more traffic to the market," says Sara McGuire. "I think most people do have their weeks of vacation planned before they know if cherries will actually be ripe, they just hope the cherries will be ready. It certainly is good for business to have cherries for the 4th of July and Cherry Fest, because that is when people are here and when they want to buy them. We do sell more cherries