Apples and weird weather squeeze cherry orchards

May 4, 2016

Cherry tree rootstock is something you almost never see in northern Michigan. Some growers are raising their own now because young trees are hard to get from commercial nurseries.
Credit Peter Payette

Fruit growers have a new problem: they can’t buy enough young trees to plant in their orchards.

This is especially true for cherry farmers in Michigan who depend on nurseries in the Pacific Northwest. It could get worse, and some farmers are preparing for a day when they can’t buy any trees.

Ben LaCross was supposed to be planting 6,000 sweet cherry trees this spring at his farm near Maple City. He ordered the trees from a nursery in Oregon three years ago, but there was some unusual weather there that fall.

“They had a 24-hour period where it went from 40 degrees in the afternoon to -16 degrees overnight,” he says “That just killed off millions of nursery tree stock”

So LaCross expects to get his trees next year. This is a common story. Fruit growers everywhere are planning years in advance to get new trees.

Freezes, floods and winds have destroyed fruit trees around the country in large numbers. That's part of the problem, but Ben LaCross says the underlying issue is demand for apples.

Apples are popular at grocery stores, and farmers are planting high density varieties. That means apple farmers plant five or 10 times as many trees per acre than they did in the past. Commercial nurseries are struggling to keep up with that demand.

“The nursery people are businessmen, too” says LaCross. “They’ve got to plant for that demand, and they can’t plant for a small specialty crop like cherries.”

Do it yourself

Apples are grown just about everywhere in the U.S. but most of the nation’s tart cherry crop is grown between Muskegon and Charlevoix.

Farmers here can still get cherry trees if they plan ahead. But Calvin Lutz, a cherry farmer near Kaleva in Manistee County, says that supply may not last.

“The nurseries out west have been talking about quitting growing Montmorency cherries,” he says. “They’ve kind of geared their brain over to growing apples.”

Calvin Lutz
Credit Peter Payette

At the moment, about a third of Lutz’s cherry orchards are old and need to come out. He says these blocks have already lost about half their trees, but he doesn’t have the trees to replace them right now.

That’s why he did something almost nobody does Up North: He planted his own nursery.

It’s tricky work with a low success rate. He has 14,000 seedlings, mostly Montmorency cherries. Each one has a bud from an adult tree that is grafted by hand onto a rootstock. Nobody on his crew had ever done it before last fall.

Lutz thinks he’ll save money even while he is learning. He says other cherry farmers think he’s crazy but he says they’re also interested in what he’s doing.

“They’re waiting to see if I can actually do this,” he says.

Not everyone is waiting. One of the largest cherry growers in the region has run a nursery since 2010.

Nels Veliquette is one of the owners of Cherry Ke, a family business that grows mainly tart cherries on 1,800 acres of orchards.

He says at that size, a nursery is not optional anymore.

“You cannot be reliant on another business to provide those trees for you,” he says. “It just becomes a matter of necessity.”

Calvin Lutz demonstrates grafting a bud onto rootstock.