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Fruit growers in the northeastern quadrant of the country are witnessing the ongoing clamor for sweet cherries, from consumers wanting them bigger, darker, sweeter, for longer—and, if possible, locally grown. These growers want to play a bigger part in supplying them.

Michigan growers produce a fifth of the nation’s sweet cherries, about 35,000 tons a year, but mostly for processing. In that market, they earn 20 to 50 cents a pound, and they can sell cherries that are smaller and less likely to crack. Not surprisingly, they’re interested in the fresh market, where growers often receive more than twice that amount, and the retail market brings prices above $2.50 a pound.

About 70 Michigan growers spent the day March 30 in sweet cherry orchards, not planting or pruning but studying what they need to do to make such a transition. Dr. Greg Lang, the Michigan State University cherry researcher who came to Michigan from the dry Pacific Northwest a decade ago, has focused his attention on finding ways to help Great Lakes area and eastern growers get their fruit into this higher value market. But even he was surprised by the turnout. “I’ve never seen so much interest in sweet cherries,” he told them on their visit to the Clarksville Horticultural Experiment Station.

At Clarksville, Lang has a planting that is part of an NC-140 project in which  different cherry growing systems are being studied. The researchers are located across the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and are looking at what works best for their growers locally and working to perfect systems along the way (see main story “Cherry growers explore new systems”).

But during lunch, local growers Mike Dietrich, from Conklin on Fruit Ridge, and Gary Bardenhagen, Traverse City, took the microphone to talk about what sweet cherry growers need to do to make Michigan sweet cherries develop into a mature fresh-market industry. Now, growers with good locations are selling directly to ­consumers from roadside stands and markets, and some distribute to grocery stores locally.

Capitalize

Dietrich, whose family business Leo Dietrich and Sons grows 60 acres of cherries, runs a small packing operation, and also works with Don Armock’s Riverridge ­Produce, which wants to bring more sweet cherries into distribution centers for large chain stores. Those stores are now dominated by cherries from California and the Northwest that arrive in an organized manner and in ­volume.

Michigan growers should be able to capitalize now, especially with rising fuel costs. They will have to pay 25 to 50 cents a pound to get cherries picked by hand for fresh market, but the incentive is definitely there, Dietrich said.

The Dietrichs began adding sweet cherries to their apple operation in 2002, trying to choose among the many new varieties and planting on Gisela rootstocks with trees five to seven feet apart in rows 15 or 16 feet apart. It’s working pretty well, Mike said. They keep adding sweet cherry acres and learning on the go. He spoke about what they’ve learned at their farm.

To capitalize on closeness to market, Michigan growers need to pack a high quality cherry—which should taste sweeter and better than those picked greener and shipped further. Dietrich is convinced Michigan sweet cherries taste better, and that western growers pick ­cherries a little too early to get the best flavor.

Dietrich thinks the West Coast growers produce firmer cherries, so Michigan growers need to handle theirs better to keep firmness. Pick them quickly, early in the day, and get them hydrocooled and refrigerated. Preserve the firmness.

Be careful in harvesting. Keeping the stems on may or may not be necessary, but for a variety like Regina, the flesh tends to tear if the stem is pulled off. In the Dietrich orchards, a field manager oversees pickers to make sure they’re not letting quality suffer by “hogging” off the ­cherries, picking fruit in clusters and ripping off spurs and leaves.

Large cherries

Shoot for large cherries, 10½ row or larger, he said. Growers can get away with 11½-row cherries, but 12-row now looks too small to modern consumers. You have to prune to get those large cherries, some varieties harder than others. The Dietrichs prune in spring and again in August.

Varieties that have looked good at Dietrich’s include Attika and Regina, and he believes the new varieties from Cornell University—the Pearl Series—might fit.  Sam is poor, he said, and Black Gold is soft and doesn’t pack well.

Growers in Michigan haven’t seen any response from application of gibberellic acid, which works in the West.

Ethrel (ethephon), which is used by Michigan growers to loosen cherries for mechanical harvest, without stems, for processing, is not useful for fresh harvest. Such ­cherries lose their stems—and also their firmness.

The old-style big cherry trees are not easy to pick. Dietrich is convinced small trees that are easy to pick will draw workers, who now can choose whether to pick  blueberries or cherries during that season.

Critical mass

Michigan needs to develop a critical mass—enough cherries to interest large retailers, enough to fit into retail operations that use distribution centers. Some growers now run their own distribution systems, delivering 10 or 15 cases to local supermarkets.

Michigan also needs more good varieties ripening over a longer period, he said.

“Right now, we have a ten-day window,” he said. “We don’t have mountains here, no elevation differences to spread out the harvest.” There is, however, a four- to five-week harvest spread in the 250 miles from southwest to northwest Michigan.

Cracking remains a serious problem, and sorting now is a necessary but expensive way to deal with it, Dietrich said. “It’s a bit wet here during sweet cherry harvest,” Dietrich said. “It’s our biggest issue.”

Bardenhagen asked the growers whether they’d be willing to pay an assessment to fund research and promotion. There is currently in Michigan a half-cent-a-pound assessment on sweet cherries for processing, which is collected by the processor.

For fresh-market cherries, there is no logical point at which to collect assessment money, since most sweet cherries are marketed directly by growers.

While some in the crowd thought a voluntary assessment program might work, most agreed that a mandatory assessment, voted in by growers, is a fairer way. The existing checkoff program on cherries for processing is up for a renewal vote next year, Bardenhagen said, and it would be good time to vote on a proposal for fresh-­market cherries.