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The uncertain future of cherry farming in northern Michigan

Sarah Hallstedt holds up cherries damaged by the weather this season.
Dan Wanschura
Interlochen Public Radio
Sarah Hallstedt holds up cherries damaged by the weather this season.

Editor’s note: we recommend you listen to this story.

Cherries are almost synonymous with life Up North. Traverse City is considered the Cherry Capital of the World, and Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the U.S. But growing cherries is getting trickier.

Increasingly erratic weather is a huge problem – evidence that the climate crisis is hurting the industry. In spring, farmers hope for mild weather. A burst of warm weather followed by a freeze could significantly damage the fruit. Come summer, they hope for enough rain to avoid a drought, but not a heavy rainfall that could split the cherries.

Cherry farmers were unlucky this growing season. Farmers were hit with the dreaded erratic spring temperatures. The harvest for tart cherries is projected to be a third of the typical harvest in northwest lower Michigan.

Then later in the season, the heavy rain followed.

“We had only an inch but it was over nine hours,” says Sarah Hallstedt, a sweet cherry farmer in Northport. “A lot of farmers lost a lot of fruit.”

Jack Gray owns and operates Gray’s Fruit Farm in Benzonia. He bought the family farm from his mother in the 70s. He said business was good in the beginning. He had his best crop in 1979. But in the last decade, the average yield has been significantly lower.

“I think you’d be much better off raising marijuana or anything right now,” he says.

Between issues with labor, pricing and climate change, Jack’s not sure cherry farming has a future in northern Michigan, but if it does, he says the industry has to change.

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Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.