Michigan's Tart Cherry Orchards Struggle To Cope With Erratic Spring Weather

19 hours ago
Originally published on April 8, 2017 12:54 am

The Montmorency tart cherry is pretty much the only sour cherry grown in the U.S. And cherry growers in Michigan know the tree really well. It was brought here from France a couple hundred years ago. "This is older than most people think of as heirloom varieties and it's our main variety to this day," says Jim Nugent, a cherry grower in northern Michigan.

The tree is "very cold hardy" in the dead of winter, he says, and grows well in the state. But it is susceptible to damage from spring frost, making it very sensitive to the extreme weather shifts made more likely by climate change. And that made tart cherry growers nervous.

Warmer days in early spring have caused cherry buds to come out earlier on average. That combined with erratic spring weather, especially when it brings severe cold snaps, has already proved disastrous for the crop.

In 2002 and 2012 freezing spring temperatures wiped out almost the entire tart cherry crop here. Nugent jokes that he couldn't harvest enough cherries to make a pie. In other years, the yields have varied widely.

The hot spell in February this year alarmed cherry growers, but the trees are OK for now. However, Jim Nugent hasn't done anything to protect his orchards from the next severe cold snap. There is little he can do, in the short run.

About 30 miles from Nugent's orchard, Todd Springer, another grower, is trying to deal with a different problem related to climate change – poor pollination. He says the honey bees that usually pollinate his fruit don't like the erratic spring weather. If there's a strong wind or if it's rainy or cold, honey bees stay in the hive.

So, he is out in his orchard, hanging a homemade beehive for a kind of bee called horn-faced. The hive is made of a white bucket with brown cardboard tubes stacked inside. The bees hang out inside the tubes. These horn-faced bees will work in inclement weather to pollinate the cherry trees, even at night. Springer calls these bees his "pollinator insurance."

Springer wants to make sure his family can keep farming land they have been on since 1868. "If we don't grow cherries," he says, "we don't get to keep our farm."

Despite all these difficulties, Springer says it's been hard for cherry growers to talk openly about climate change. Everyone has so much at stake, he says. "It means we have to change," he says. "And does that change look like?"

He was at a conference once with a speaker talking about warming temperatures when a grower got angry and yelled, and claimed that this information was presented to cost farmers more money.

Last month, Springer signed up for an all-day workshop, but it was cancelled due to lack of interest. He says it's ironic that one of the talks was about whether the public cares about the problems climate change might cause farmers. "And we couldn't get more than 11 farmers to come to the meeting, to care about it," he says. "I don't know what that says, but like I said, it's hard to talk about, it's hard to listen to."

It turns out that the public does care about how climate change affects farmers, at least, in Michigan, says Julie Winkler, a geology professor at Michigan State University, who was supposed to share her research at that workshop.

Winkler was involved in a survey that found that people do want the government to help farmers adapt to climate change, especially when asked during record hot weather. "It was up to 80 percent but it fell back to about 70 percent after the warm spell, so it actually was quite strong," she says.

If there was money to help cherry farmers adapt, it's not clear yet, how it would best be spent. Many have fans blowing cold air out of valleys where it settles. Some growers are experimenting with sprinklers to cool trees and keep them dormant a little longer in the spring.

Jim Nugent thinks what's really needed is a new breed of tart cherry that's less susceptible to frost. "I'm not sure if 50 years from now if Montmorency is still going to be a viable variety," he says. "I think we've got to find something that is going to be more frost-tolerant."

Researchers are trying to breed trees that bloom later, but introducing a new breed to the market can take decades. And Jim Nugent says researchers have only been at it since the 1980s.

For now, the tart cherry industry in Michigan continues to rely almost exclusively on the Montmorency. And there is no sign that growers are moving away from tarts and converting their orchards to other fruits.

Copyright 2017 Interlochen Public Radio. To see more, visit Interlochen Public Radio.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

So far this year, cold weather has frozen blueberries in the south. Rains have drowned lettuce in California. And in Michigan where tart cherries are big business, growers are preparing for a long battle with extreme weather. Peter Payette from Interlochen Public Radio reports.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: Cherry growers in Michigan know one tree really well - the Montmorency tart cherry.

JIM NUGENT: It makes a very nice pie, very nice dried product. It's very cold hardy.

PAYETTE: That's Jim Nugent, a grower in northern Michigan. When he says cold hardy, he means in the winter, not when the buds come out in the spring.

NUGENT: The variety we grow of the Montmorency gets to a very susceptible stage for frost damage quite early in that bud development.

PAYETTE: In 2002 and 2012, freezing temperatures wiped out almost the entire tart cherry crop here. Nugent jokes he couldn't harvest enough cherries to make a pie. Today he's pruning trees with a handsaw. Growers this year were alarmed by a hot spell in February, but the trees are OK. But Jim Nugent hasn't done anything to protect his orchards from the next severe cold snap.

NUGENT: There's not a huge amount we can do in the short run.

PAYETTE: That doesn't mean there's nothing. Todd Springer is trying to deal with another problem related to climate change - poor pollination. He's hanging a homemade beehive made of a white bucket and brown cardboard straws.

TODD SPRINGER: Angling the box down just a little bit so that if it does rain, the water doesn't collect in the box.

PAYETTE: Inside the straws are a different kind of bee called hornfaced. Springer says he's breeding them because the honeybees that usually pollinate his fruit don't like the erratic spring weather either.

SPRINGER: If it's blowing and if it's rainy and cold, honeybees stay in the hive.

PAYETTE: Springer says he's doing this to make sure his family can keep farming land they've been on since 1868.

SPRINGER: If we don't grow cherries, we don't get to keep our farm.

PAYETTE: Todd Springer says talking about climate change is tough for cherry growers because everyone has so much at stake. He was at a conference once with a speaker talking about warming temperatures when a grower got angry and yelled.

SPRINGER: And claimed that this information was just presented to cost us more money as farmers.

PAYETTE: Last month, Springer signed up for an all-day workshop on climate, but it was canceled due to lack of interest. He says it's ironic that one of the talks was about whether the public cares about the problems climate change might cause farmers.

SPRINGER: And we couldn't get more than 11 farmers to come to the meeting to care about it (laughter). And so it's a - I don't know what that says, but like I said, it's hard to talk about. It's hard to listen to.

PAYETTE: The public does care, at least in Michigan. Julie Winkler is a geology professor at Michigan State University who was supposed to share some of her research at the conference. She found people want the government to help farmers adapt to climate change, especially when asked about the problem during record hot weather.

JULIE WINKLER: It was up to 80 percent, but it fell then back to about 70 percent after the warm spell. So it actually was quite strong.

PAYETTE: If there were money to help cherry farmers adapt, it's not clear yet how it would best be spent. There are experiments with sprinklers to cool trees and keep them dormant a little longer in the spring. Jim Nugent thinks what's really needed is a new breed of tart cherry that's more frost-tolerant.

NUGENT: I'm not sure 50 years from now if Montmorency is still going to be a viable variety.

PAYETTE: Researchers are trying to breed trees that bloom later, but introducing a new breed to the market can take decades. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette in Traverse City, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAR PARKS SONG, "LOOSE ENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.