How Tart Cherries Are Grown in Michigan: And Why You Should Look for Them Now

published Oct 3, 2013
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Who: Don Gregory of Cherry Bay Orchards
What: Tart Cherries
Where: Traverse City and Leelanau County, Michigan

This summer I took a jaunt to the beautiful shores of northern Michigan with a pack of food writers and dietitians to see how cherries — tart cherries, to be precise — are grown, harvested, and sent to market. This was thrilling, to be perfectly frank, because if I could choose just one fruit to eat, cherries would be near the top of the list, and tart cherries are a particular passion as they are certainly my favorite fruit to bake with.

But why am I showing you this now? Isn’t the cherry season long over? Well, that’s the thing about tart cherries: did you know that 99% of them are actually frozen or preserved? They’re too delicate to ship fresh. This means that it’s actually tart cherry season all year round, at least in my house. Here’s a peek into how and where they’re grown, some of the challenges facing the industry, and why I have a bag of tart cherries in my freezer right now.

Don Gregory of Cherry Bay Orchards (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Challenges of Being a Cherry Grower

When I go on trips like these, the thing that interests me the most is watching how an industry tries to present itself, and discovering how that matches up to the economic realities facing its rank and file. What’s the real story of how a food is produced or grown, and what are the challenges inherent in bringing it to the table?

This is especially relevant right now to the tart cherry farmers of northern Michigan, who normally produce about 75% of the tart cherries grown in the United States. Last year, however, they experienced a catastrophic loss of their crop. During the trip I talked to Phil Korson, director of the Cherry Marketing Institute, who explained how the trees budded during an early, unseasonable warm spell, and then a late frost destroyed the blossoms. The growers lost 97% of their expected crop. Most of these farmers wisely diversify their income with apples and other crops, but still — it was a tough year for the tart cherry growers in Michigan.

To supply last year’s demand for tart cherries, which is driven primarily by bakeries and packagers (think cherry pie and dried cherries), Korson told me that the industry had to import tart cherries from Poland and Turkey, two other major producers.

But this year, which promises to be very good, the growers want to reclaim their share of the market — and open up new markets for tart cherries.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

→ Flip through the Grower Tour gallery above to see more details on the cherry harvesting process!

What Will Make People Choose Cherries?

I asked Korson what was driving their vigorous efforts in pitching cherries, besides the desire to recapture the lost market share from last year. The answer was simple and expected: making farming a sustainable, viable living for growers.

Cherry consumption in the United States has dropped dramatically, as pie has gone out of fashion, and cherries meet competition from the rich variety of other fruits available now. Growing their market, convincing consumers that cherries are as good for you as blueberries or cranberries, and offering fresh ways to see cherries — this is what a marketing board is designed to do, and I was impressed by their cheery, brisk efficiency in telling the story of cherries.

A major aspect of the story that they (and other fruit and vegetable industries) are pursuing is the health narrative. The industry is working hard to persuade cooks that cherries are not only delicious, but good for you too. I wish I had a nickel for every time “antioxidant,” “phytonutrient,” or any one of a cocktail of vitamins was mentioned. The dishes I was encouraged to add cherries to over the course of the trip included, variously, salads, sweet potatoes, fish, lamb, and smoothies.

All of this makes sense (although I do admit to a wistful desire for everyone to just eat more cherry pie. There really isn’t enough good cherry pie in the world.). An industry like this, producing a specialty fruit, is at the mercy of consumer whims and trends, and it’s interesting to see how they are working hard to create their own story of where cherries belong on the table.

→ Flip through the Grower Tour gallery above to see more details on the cherry harvesting process!

Frozen Tart Cherries: A Treat for Bakers

But to me, the real selling point of cherries is how well they freeze. If you’re lucky enough to live near an orchard you can perhaps snag a bucket of water-packed cherries during the peak of the harvest season, but beyond that, tart cherries are a frozen fruit. As I said, they don’t ship well fresh, but a tart cherry is just as magic in a baked pie or cobbler as a fresh one.

Frozen tart cherries can be thawed and pickled or preserved for cocktails; they can be put in smoothies or drinks. There are no tart cherries getting imported fresh to supermarkets from Mexico or Chile; and honestly, this is a good thing. Instead of worrying you missed the all-too brief season, you can stock your freezer. In fact, I made the best cherry cobbler of my life a couple weeks ago, thanks to frozen tart cherries (don’t squawk — I’ll share the recipe next week!).

Overall, the trip was a fascinating peek into the real world of one corner of American farming. If you’ve eaten a cherry pie, a bag of dried cherries, or had cherry juice in a cocktail, chances are very good that you were eating tart cherries from Michigan, grown in just one county that provides over 75% of the country’s supply.

And I felt that listening to their story of their challenges, opportunities, and successes was a peek into farming as a whole in America. Farming, after all, is not just the romanticized story of one farmer on a few acres of land, but also the collective narrative of small industries like this, growing food we all love and don’t want to see go away.

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Wandering through the tart cherry trees at Cherry Bay Orchards in Traverse City, Michigan. (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

→ Flip through the Grower Tour gallery above to see more details on the cherry harvesting process!

Find cherries online: Cherry Bay Orchards, our hosts on this visit, sell dried cherries and cherry juice concentrate online.

Information for this post was gathered during a press trip sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.

(Images: Faith Durand)