Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 7, 2013

The booming business of cherries

By MARY BEVANS GILLETTE Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Festivals are fun, but cherries are big business year-round in northwest Michigan.

Farming, fruit processing, distribution of nutriceuticals, retail and drawing in tourists are examples of the economic impact cherries have throughout the region.

“Fifty percent of the nation’s supply of tart cherries is produced in northwest Michigan, which is significant,” said Cherry Marketing Institute President Phil Korson.

Excluding 2012's weather-related crop damage, the region produces an average 110-million pounds of tart cherries annually among 252 farms. The farms cover 17,900 acres in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee, Antrim and Charlevoix counties, according to USDA statistics.

The farm value of cherry production statewide averages $46 million annually.

“It is also an industry that has reinvented itself to be relevant today…and has found its way into the national media,” Korson said, noting cherries have evolved from bakery ingredients into a health food and super fruit.

One example of an entrepreneur making a cherry-based business work is Michelle’s Miracle, founded by Michelle White of Leland in 2001. The business sells cherry concentrate as a dietary supplement to more than 2,000 groceries and retailers throughout the country, including such national chains as Whole Foods.

“We started selling one bottle at a time…and built out one store at a time,” White said, noting distributors wouldn’t initially carry her product unless stores were buying, but stores wouldn’t order unless distributors were carrying it.

She addressed the problem by doing store demonstrations and educating snowbirds about the health benefits, building a customer base hands on. Today, the business has sold more than 100,000 bottles of Michele’s Miracle, relying on local cherries for the concentrate and bottling and shipping through Cherry Growers in Traverse City.

Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce president Doug Luciani said at least 10 to 15 percent of the chamber’s 2,000 members are directly involved with cherries. Close to 75 percent are directly or indirectly impacted by the industry.

Luciani said the chamber works with many area cherry processors to support their business efforts, including projects like Graceland Fruit’s industrial park expansion, Shoreline Fruit’s renaissance zone and Leelanau Fruit Company’s Buckley plant. Advocacy, he said, was important in last year’s trucking legislation, which allowed trailers to extend an additional three feet. The new rules reduced the number of trailers and shipments required to move product to market.

Nutriceuticals and food businesses like Benjamin Twiggs, Cherry Republic, Brownwood Acres, Food for Thought and Grand Traverse Pie Company create an economic impact that ripples throughout the region. Benjamin Twiggs in Traverse City has sold cherry products since 1956. Owner Julie Millen said demand continues to grow even when economic conditions were challenging.

“I bought the business in 2008, in the midst of the economic downturn,” she said, “but we still managed to double (sales) volume in the last five years.”

Millen has worked on developing multiple channels including online sales, corporate gifts and wedding and event favors, in addition to her retail storefront.

Tourism dollars factor into the cherry’s economic impact. Pure Michigan’s Dave Lorenz said agriculture and tourism, which represent the state’s second and third largest employers, are closely aligned. The travel industry is an $18-billion industry, with 200,000 jobs statewide in tourism, he said, noting events like the National Cherry Festival result in millions of dollars in economic activity.

“There is no doubt when you encourage people to come for a special event, they will spend money on hotels, restaurants, shopping and gas stations,” Lorenz said, noting travelers average at least $100 in spending per day. “The mom and pop shops benefit from the revenue and the state benefits from sales tax revenue that would not have been received otherwise.”

National Cherry Festival Executive Director Trevor Tkach said the organization has a $2 million budget, including $500,000 in sponsorship funds. The organization is striving to create partnerships and a business model that creates visibility and value year-round.

“Our mission is to celebrate the cherry industry …and we are doing good things year round…with a positive economic impact,” Tkach said.