The future of cherries in northern Michigan? Maybe not so sour
After a lifetime of cherries, Dave Edmondson still doesn’t get sick of the fruit.
“Everybody has to have their daily bowl of cherries,” Edmondson said. “That’s a cliche that must be adhered to.”
He lives in a brown farmhouse perched high on Old Mission Peninsula with views of Grand Traverse Bay from either side.
But no matter which window you look through, there’s one thing that’s visible from every angle: rows and rows of cherry trees.
Edmondson is a fourth-generation fruit grower on Old Mission Peninsula, and he’s been surrounded by cherry orchards for all 70 years of his life.
His family grew exclusively cherries, almost all for processing – tart and sweet fruit destined for cans, pies, syrups, and ice creams.
By the 1970s, northern Michigan’s perfectly suited microclimate and advancements like mechanical shakers made growing cherries for processing a big business.
Most cherry growers, like the Edmondsons, dedicated their entire orchards to it. It’s how Michigan became the nation’s biggest tart cherry producer, a title the state still holds despite a changing industry.
In 1985, Edmondson bought his own farm, where he still is today. That same year, Michigan growers produced a whopping 202 million pounds of tart cherries.
But the market was becoming flooded, and the price processors were willing to pay for cherries kept dropping. That trend continued for decades, and cheaper imports from places like Turkey only exacerbated the issue.
“There were years when we had these beautiful crops, and we couldn’t sell the product. The processing community would not even take them,” said Edmondson.
His significant other at the time had an idea for a last-ditch effort to recuperate some of their losses: advertise a fresh, Traverse City cherry sale in downstate papers.
“It didn’t generate a lot of people coming in,” Edmondson said. “But it did start a new way of looking at things in my mind.”
That summer influenced him so much that just a few years later, he decided to change up everything to try staying in business.
But that meant cutting down fields full of cherry trees he grew for processing: the same trees he’d planted and tended to for decades.
“They’re almost like your little babies, so they’re hard to cut down and stop that hemorrhaging of cost. But we finally did it here ten years ago,” Edmondson said. “There's this love affair, so to speak, with that tree, with that product that you're growing. I mean, that you think it's your lifeblood and it really is your lifeblood. But things change.”
Edmondson replanted with a smaller group of trees bred for growing sweet cherries. But instead of selling them to processors, these sweet cherries would be sold fresh at roadside stands, supermarkets, and in U-pick fields.
The gamble paid off.
“I can show a profit. I wasn’t able to show a profit for many years with the mass production [of cherries for processing], where our inputs were lower but our returns were even lower yet,” said Edmondson.
He’s among a growing wave of traditional cherry growers who’ve pivoted to fresh fruit.
The art and science of fresh cherries
Nikki Rothwell says making that change is one of the only ways for cherry growers to remain viable.
Rothwell is a horticulturalist and coordinator at MSU Extension Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Leelanau County.
“Climate change is a huge issue. Invasive insects are a huge issue. Pressures from imports are a big issue,” said Rothwell. “I think we're going to have to maybe rethink what our farm looks like, maybe rethink what that portfolio on the farm looks like. And, you know, maybe not [put] all the eggs in that tart cherry basket.”
To be clear, growing fresh market sweet cherries is no walk in the park.
If the skin of the fruit cracks, they’re unsellable. They’re susceptible to many of the same insects, diseases, and funguses that cherries grown for processing are.
Fresh fruit trees have to be pruned more aggressively. Plus, they must be harvested by hand, which means farmers need to find enough labor and housing each season.
But even with all those costs, growing fruit to sell fresh and direct-to-consumer is keeping farmers in business at a time when traditional cherry growing just can’t.
There’s acres of experimental orchards behind the center where Rothwell and her colleagues have spent years studying the best ways to grow fresh fruit.
In some sections, they’re testing a farmer’s worst nightmare: entire blocks of trees infected with bacterial rot, fungus, or an insect infestation.
But in others, they’re studying different systems for growing fresh cherries.
Rothwell says her favorite is a system called "UFO," short for upright fruiting offshoots. The small trees are pruned onto a trellis system, eventually creating what looks like a flat, fruiting hedge.
Fundamental to all these experiments, of course, is the actual cherry tree itself. And it’s not the tree of yesteryear.
Isaiah Wunsch is the CEO of Wunsch Farms and Third Coast Fruit. Like most growers transitioning to fresh fruit, he’s steadily switching over traditional trees to what are called high-density trees.
These trees are dwarves of their predecessors, but they produce boggling amounts of fruit for their size. They allow farmers to grow more cherries in less space, and they’re easier to harvest by hand.
But there’s still a long way to go.
Wunsch’s business distributes a huge amount of fresh, Michigan-grown cherries throughout the state and region every season.
“But we’re still tiny compared to West Coast producers,” said Wunsch.
He says northern Michigan needs more infrastructure to be able to distribute fresh cherries on a truly national scale. That’s why Wunsch Farms built dormitories and family housing for workers.
They also invested in constructing their own packinghouse early on. Wunsch said they’ve had to double their packing capacity in just the last three years, and they’ll likely have to expand again soon.
“One of the things that's challenging about orchards is that if there's no longer a demand for the crops that you're growing, it takes years to redevelop new orchards,” said Wunsch. “So the transition is slow, but I think there's definitely a transition going on in northern Michigan already.”
The Wunsch Farms packinghouse is a key part of that transition.
Raul Gomez is Wunsch’s business partner, and the operations manager who helps oversee the packing operation.
“This is pretty much the final stop for any hand-picked cherries that we pack before [they] get loaded and distributed,” explained Gomez.
Cherries arrive fresh from orchards across northwest Michigan, then they’re placed into a massive cooler to chill for a day. But once they’ve reached the right temperature, it’s go time.
Each cherry is rinsed, then shuttled up a small escalator.
“Then it’s separated into … four lanes that’ll carry the cherry,” said Gomez.
The four lanes travel through what looks like a cherry TSA checkpoint, where a machine takes rapid infrared photos, then sorts the fruit by size, color, firmness, and any defects.
Little bursts of air push the bad ones off of the conveyor belt, and the best ones continue until they’re dropped into packaging for different customers. Gomez says the whole process only takes about five to eight seconds.
Wunsch and Gomez say this is what the future of cherry growing looks like in northern Michigan.
The cherry orchard of tomorrow isn’t simply a cherry orchard.
It’s got trees, but it also has dormitories and packinghouses. It’s less land and more fresh fruit, including crops like apples, peaches, plums, pears, wine grapes, and apricots. It’s consulting work for other farms who want to get into the fresh fruit business. And for those who want to keep growing tarts, it’s vertically integrating their own processing operations.
But for cherry growers who can overcome the mental and financial hurdles of transitioning out of the old way, Dave Edmondson says there’s a lot of good to be had.
“I only need to sell a small amount of that out here at my roadside stand and my other vendors, and I do well. And people are happy. People are really happy with that product … I feel so relieved not to have to do [cherries for processing] anymore,” Edmondson said.
Edmondson said he’s still excited to grow cherries next year. “I think like probably most farmers that are born into it, you die with it. And I don’t know what better life you could’ve had.”
But he also knows it’s a life that fewer and fewer people choose as the industry changes. Edmondson, Wunsch, Gomez, and Rothwell worry about a future where there’s not enough young farmers to take over all the agricultural land leftover as growers retire or move on.
For now, though, fruit growers, researchers, workers, and distributors all echo the same perennial hope: next year will be their year.
Raul Gomez, who was interviewed for this story, is a member of IPR’s Community Advisory Council. The council has no editorial control over stories.