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Participants of the International Fruit Tree Association visit a Michigan State University sweet cherry research trials in July at Riveridge Land Company in Grand, Michigan, during the International Fruit Tree Association Study Tour. Horticulturist Greg Lang is in the first of a three year trial growing six rows of Pearl cherries on Gisela 5 rootstocks using a variety of trellised training systems to see which reaches the seventh and top trellis first. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

International Fruit Tree Association Study Tour participants visit a Michigan State University sweet cherry research trial at Riveridge Land Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in July. Horticulturist Greg Lang is in the first of a three-year trial growing six rows of Pearl cherries on Gisela 5 rootstocks using a variety of trellised training systems to see which reaches the seventh and top trellis first. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Michigan residents want to buy local fresh sweet cherries, so for growers who can figure out how to provide high quality cherries, the demand is there, Justin Finkler said at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Mark Expo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December.

“If we can do the job qualitywise, I think we can get that premium on local fruit and get them in to our customers,” said Finkler, operations manager for Riveridge Produce Co., the largest apple shipper in Michigan. The company started experimenting with sweet cherries planted at high-density with the fresh market in mind in 2009 and now plans to add 40,000 new trees in the next few years.

“We can’t meet demands,” he said, adding that the company is looking to partner with more cherry growers. “We need more acres of sweet cherries that work for the fresh market.”

Michigan growers harvested 21,000 tons of sweet cherries in 2016 and nearly 19,000 in 2017, most of which goes for processing. But processing returns at 50 cents a pound pale in comparison to the $1.50 or even $2 a pound growers can make with fresh market cherries, which means more orchardists are testing out the transition.

The challenges to making those higher prices, however, are many, Finkler said: producing big, firm fruit, without defects from bruising, brown rot or birds, that can compete with the cherries grown in the Northwest. Harvesting fruit by hand is expensive, as is the extra labor needed to prune trees more aggressively to encourage larger fruit.

System trials

To find the best systems, Riveridge is working with Michigan State University horticulturist Greg Lang on a trial comparing V trellis, UFO and KGB systems.

Their newest cherry blocks that aren’t part of the trial are planted in a vertical system, spaced at 12 feet by 3 feet, for a total of 1,210 trees per acre, Finkler said. That costs $17,000 an acre to plant, including the trellis. That’s a big investment, but last year, returns were over $9,000 an acre. However, “that was in a really good year,” Finkler said.

So far, the most reliable variety for Riveridge in the Sparta area is Benton, but the company also grows Regina, Burgundy Pearl, Black Pearl, Attika and Skeena, Finkler said.

John King, a longtime tart cherry grower from Central Lake who started planting dwarfing sweets in 2013, also favors Benton as the “strongest cropper.”

“We’re pretty excited about the prospects,” said King, who now has 16 acres of sweets planted at 12-by-6 on Gisela 6 rootstocks. “They really fill the space in a hurry, since we have a rich soil where we are.”

A trend?

Other cherry growers hope to transition existing processing blocks to fresh market production. Isaiah Wunsch, who grows tart and sweet cherries in Traverse City, said it is possible, but it isn’t easy. Most of his sweet cherries are Ulster planted on Mazzard.

“If you’ve got those more traditional dark sweet blocks, you can adapt those pretty well,” Wunsch said. “It’s going to take more aggressive pruning. And irrigation is essential to meet the size specs on standard trees.”

Wunsch said he harvests 10- and 11-row stem-off cherries right now, but agreed with Finkler and King that stem-on cherries is the direction for growth in the industry. He’s planning new plantings with dwarfing trees and hopes to add a modern cherry grader to improve efficiency and quality.

The packing line run by Dietrich Orchards in Conklin, Michigan, is also expanding its capability to pack fresh cherries, said Adam Dietrich. They pack for Riveridge and other growers and hope to run a million pounds of sweet cherries this year.

The key, Dietrich said, is to pack only fruit of high quality and large size. They do quality inspections in the orchard before fruit is sent for packing.

“We’re looking for cherries 25mm or bigger,” he said, making 11 row the minimum. “You can’t grow small varieties for fresh anymore.”

That’s why his family ripped out old Sam and Black Grove blocks in favor of high-density plantings of Regina, Sweetheart and Benton on Gisela rootstocks.

Able to compete

So far, all this amounts to baby steps into the market dominated by Northwest growers. But early signs show that Michigan growers can compete.

“We did sell cherries in Detroit this year for over $30 a box,” King said. “And the terminal was flooded with cherries from Washington at $20 a box, so that Michigan name does add some value for you.”

Wunsch agreed, and added that cherry growers in Northern Michigan have the opportunity to harvest at a late season sweet spot as Northwest cherries wrap up.

“Right now, our prices are 50 to 70 percent above Washington’s. Any year that Washington is early, I feel more comfortable that our fruit will move at the prices we’re asking,” he said, adding that late season sweet cherries can stretch into August in his area. “Customers will pay the price that you ask and they will come back if you have a good quality cherry.”

And that local feel that encourages customers to pay a little bit more has a pretty long reach, Finkler said. “It even resonates in Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee. We have a long way to go before we push up against the Western market.” •

by Kate Prengaman