The cherry: a little scarlet globe of sweet pleasure. This time of year, those of us in Michigan eagerly anticipate stopping by our local fruit farm in search of this tiny, flavorful vermillion prize.
Last week I excitedly searched my utensil drawer to dig out my coveted cherry pitter for its annual exercise of de-pitting 10-pound boxes of this favorite fruit for canning and freezing to sustain me through the long winter. My head was afloat in sweet thoughts of jams, pies and other good treats I would make.
With over half a million expected attendees this week at one of the state’s largest gatherings — the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City― we cherry-lovers face a sad scenario: the Michigan cherry crop has been devastated and our erratic weather is to blame.
A freakishly warm March jump-started the growing season causing trees to blossom early, and then subsequent typical freezes in April blasted the young buds. As a result, the cherry crop was decimated: a 90 percent loss in the tart and 80 percent loss in the sweet varieties. Prices rose 40 percent. Because fruit was so sparse, much of it had to be hand-picked instead of using shakers, an increased labor cost which may have added to prices. Festival goers will eat mostly local cherries, but they will be supplemented by cherries from Washington and Poland.
What we’re seeing in Michigan may likely be part of a larger issue. Carbon pollution is warming our Earth, causing increasingly erratic weather, including earlier springs and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. One study by a Nature Conservancy scientist found global warming has the potential to greatly reduce temperate fruit and nut crop yields (including cherries), resulting in losses of $93 billion annually, and impacting the ability of growers in some regions to produce the same array of crops as they have in the past.
This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will offer assistance to fruit farmers in nearly all of the state’s affected counties. The impacts may not only be local: Michigan supplies 75 percent of the country’s tart cherries, which are used in many food products, and 20 percent of the sweet kind.
The last time Michigan’s cherry crop was hurt badly was in 2002, and prior to that, 50 years earlier. Although this year’s extreme spring weather may have been an anomaly, some scientists say that warmer temperatures, wetter conditions and more erratic weather events linked to a changing climate could impact Michigan’s crops, making me fret about the long-term fate of the precious local cherry.
I made that anticipated call to my fruit farm to inquire if cherries were available and this year’s price: $42 for a box of the sweet kind versus $28 per box last year. Yikes! Talk about climate change hitting my pocketbook.
As I face the economic dilemma of paying significantly more for my cherries, I bitterly stifle my urge with hopes that next year’s crop will be better, and back goes my pitter to the drawer. Let’s just say erratic weather is the pits.
Margaret Francis is Assistant Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project
Featured Photo © Rebecca Hagerman/TNC (Sophia Hagerman looks at handful of sweet Michigan cherries.)
Top photo © Rachael Franks-Taylor/TNC (Helly Taylor relishing a rare local cherry in Traverse City, Michigan.)
Thumbnail Photo © Rachael Franks-Taylor/TNC (Scarce sweet cherries at the farmers’ market in Traverse City, Michigan.)
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