Traverse City News and Events

Is The Cherry Capital At Risk Of Losing Its Global Crown?

By Craig Manning | July 4, 2022

Traverse City has long been known as the “Cherry Capital of the World.” The first National Cherry Festival was hosted here in 1925, and the rest was history.

Nearly a century later, northern Michigan’s biggest tourist draw remains that same grand celebration of the cherry industry. But have a conversation with a local cherry farmer and you’ll likely come away with a much different portrait of cherry commerce. Behind the scenes, the local cherry industry is struggling to fight off a slew of threats—from climate change to invasive pests to competition from foreign growers—and those issues are making the practice of growing cherries here a challenging business proposition.

All these factors lead to a single question: As farmers sell land or convert crops to make ends meet, could northern Michigan’s days as the Cherry Capital of the World be numbered?

The first cherry trees in the region were planted on Old Mission Peninsula in the 1850s. Over time, cherry farming became the area’s calling card, especially tart cherries. The commonly-cited statistic among locals is that the five-county region produces 100-120 million pounds of tart cherries each year, some 40-50 percent of the total domestic crop.

Northern Michigan’s rise to titan-level status in the cherry industry wasn’t an accident, but rather the result of the area's moderate temperatures, sandy soil, and rolling hills.

According to Isaiah Wunsch, a sixth-generation farmer who serves as CEO for the Old Mission-based Wunsch Farms, those favorable factors have persisted through the past 170 years.

“Tart cherries still do really well up here,” Wunsch says. “We probably have the best climate for growing tart cherries in North America, if not in the world.”

But favorable climate and topography aren’t everything. Climate change is causing more erratic weather in the spring and fall, which can devastate local cherry crops. Invasive species like the spotted wing drosophila are attacking and damaging fruit while it’s still on the tree. And cherry products flooding into the domestic market from foreign countries are undercutting domestic price points and making it difficult for farmers to turn a profit.

At King Orchards in Central Lake, volatile spring weather has led to four cherry crop failures in the last 20 years. The most recent of those occurred in 2021 and left King Orchards with less than 10 percent of a crop. 

When King has been able to deliver cherry products all the way to the marketplace, they’ve often been met by foreign competition. Countries like Turkey have cherry growing industries that are government-subsidized, which in turn allows them to sell their products into the U.S. market at artificially low prices.

This practice, referred to as “dumping,” is technically legal under World Trade Organization rules, but can be penalized if the importing country can prove that dumping practices have hurt their domestic producers. A few years ago, several local growers petitioned the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the International Trade Commission (ITC) to investigate Turkey for potentially harmful dumping practices.

Not everything is cloudy for local cherry farmers. After a disastrous year in 2021 and a bad one in 2020, growers across the board are predicting bigger, better crops in 2022. Wunsch says this spring has been kind to cherries, with good pollination, a slow and steady post-winter warm-up, and a “pretty much unbroken cycle, where we’ll have five to six days of nice, temperate weather interspersed with good rain events.” Those growing conditions are leading to what Wunsch thinks will be “a slightly-above-average cherry crop.”

There is also lots of opportunity for farms to diversify, which many cherry growers are doing to protect themselves from the volatility of the tart cherry market. King Orchards grows strawberries, raspberries, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, and apples. Wunsch Farms, meanwhile, has pivoted away from tart cherries almost entirely, opting instead for sweet cherries and fresh apples. The fresh produce market, Wunsch says, is more stable and less vulnerable to foreign importers than processed fruit, which is where much of the demand for tart cherries lies.

“We’ve bought about 160 acres in the last seven years from farmers who had worked with us to get their farms ready to transition over to fresh sweet cherries,” Wunsch says. “We’re also just wrapping up the planting of about 40 acres of new fresh apples and fresh sweet cherries. So there are definitely examples of farms on Old Mission that have diversified into other tree fruit crops, and those farms are not only maintaining acreage that they currently have, but are also expanding to encompass new land, including land sold by some retiring farmers.”

One Old Mission farmer eyeing retirement is Dan Fouch. A lifelong fruit grower, Fouch for years owned 126 acres along Center, Smokey Hollow, and Bluff roads. He and his wife MaryAnn sold off the majority of that land several years ago, to three different buyers. While Fouch is on the way out of the agriculture business, he still thinks a lot about the feasibility of cherry farming on Old Mission.

What makes the peninsula special, he says, is the beauty of the agricultural land. Fouch wants to see all that land preserved, even if it means selling his own land for less money.

“We had several cash offers for our property—probably for more money than we got—from people that wanted to buy it and develop it,” Fouch says. “But MaryAnn and I both really, really wanted to keep the land in ag.”

Even with that property staying in agriculture, though, Fouch doesn’t expect it to stay in cherry farming. Because of how desirable and expensive the land on Old Mission has become and because cherry pricing tends to be lackluster, Fouch is convinced more Old Mission farmland will shift toward other crops or agribusiness ventures.

The example of agribusiness on Old Mission that has proven to be most lucrative is also the obvious one: wineries. King Orchards has found success with the U-Pick model, particularly since the pandemic turned family-friendly outdoor activities into a highly in-demand niche.

Diversification of local farmland bodes well for the long-term survival of northern Michigan agriculture. But what about the “Cherry Capital of the World” title? For Wunsch, the answer is mixed

“I know a lot of tart cherries are still being planted in Leelanau and in the stretch between Traverse City and Elk Rapids,” he says. “I actually think Old Mission is kind of an anomaly, in that we’re seeing a lot of reduction in the acreage of those crops. So we will probably continue to see plenty of production of tart cherries in Antrim County and Leelanau and eastern Grand Traverse County. But it’s pretty tough now to grow a commodity crop like tart cherries on Old Mission, given the property values and the development pressure.”

This article is excerpted from a feature in this week's Northern Express.

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