Drought, freeze kill most of Wisconsin tart cherry crop

By M.L. Johnson

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — The heart of Wisconsin’s cherry industry is a glum place these days: There’s little to harvest after a drought and cold winter.

Some orchard owners in Door County are forgoing the harvest altogether, saying the money they’d earn wouldn’t cover the cost of picking the fruit.

"I was out counting the other day, and I don’t even think I have maybe a couple pounds on each tree," said Tom Sayer, who owns Cherry Lane Orchards in Forestville. "It’s really bad."


Wisconsin is expected to produce only 200,000 pounds of tart cherries this year, down from 10.4 million last year, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Several other cherry-producing states also expect a smaller crop due to bad weather. Industry leader Michigan is expected to produce 135 million pounds this year, down from 193 million last year.

In all, the top seven tart cherry states are expected to harvest 177.3 million pounds this year, down 30 percent from last year’s 251.9 million pounds.

Although farmers will feel the pinch, consumers won’t. It’s unlikely there will be a shortage or price increase because a portion of the harvest in good years is put into reserve for bad years, like this one, said Perry Hedin, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board in DeWitt, Mich.

"The tart cherry industry is one of the most volatile in terms of production in the United States," Hedin said. "Historically, we’ve seen large crops, small crops, large crops, small crops."

Sweet cherries are grown primarily for eating fresh. The tart cherry, also called "red tart" or "sour cherry" is widely used for canning and processing to make jams, preserves and pies.

Growers in Door County had a bountiful harvest last year. Sayer’s 12 acres of cherry trees produced 120,000 pounds. "Last year was the best year we’ve had at the orchard, and this year will probably be the worst," he said.

The big harvest stressed the trees at the same time a drought hit the northeastern Wisconsin peninsula. Then, in January it warmed up to about 40 degrees just long enough for buds to emerge before the temperature plummeted to 10 degrees below zero.


"They just couldn’t take that, and the buds were in effect killed in that time," said Steve Wood, whose family runs Wood Orchard Market in Egg Harbor.

They grow sweet cherries, which also fared poorly. Wood said he will have to supplement whatever he can pick with cherries from Michigan to have enough to sell at his family’s market.

Bad weather hurt other states as well this year. Michigan had multiple spring freezes, and wet weather hampered pollination in western portions of the state, the USDA said. Utah’s crop was hurt by a late freeze and cold spring.

New York’s harvest was expected to be 9.2 million pounds this year, down from 13 million last year because of frost and cold weather during bloom. But Jim Allen, president of the New York Cherry Growers Association, said that could be further reduced after recent hail in the state’s top cherry growing county damaged more of the crop.

Jim Seaquist, whose family has about half of the tart cherry acreage in Door County, said he thinks the USDA estimate for his region is high. There may be a few cherries on the trees, but picking them would cost more than farmers could earn, he said.

His family has farmed in Door County for more than 100 years and has seen losses of half or even 70 percent of the cherries. But there’s been nothing like this.

"This is as close to a total wipeout as you can get," Seaquist said.

Growers are hoping the governor will declare an agricultural disaster and convince the federal government to do so, allowing farmers to apply for disaster aid, he said.


Loretta Robertoy, who owns Hyline Orchard in Fish Creek, said she also doesn’t expect to pick cherries this year. But as a contributor to the national cherry reserve, she should be able to withdraw some fruit.

"It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll get through," she said.

Since most growers don’t process their fruit, they are in a tough position. Sayer won’t have any income from his orchard this year but still must replant trees that died and maintain others.

"As we speak, I’m painting a house," he said. "You’ve got to find something else."

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