TRAVERSE CITY — Covered in chocolate, embedded in nut bars and even eaten plain — dried tart cherry uses are on the upswing across the country.
Cherry producers noted a change over the last seven or eight years: an increasing percentage of tart cherries are being produced for use as dried fruit, as opposed to wet applications such as pies and jams.
The trend will be reflected in a small change requested by the Cherry Industry Executive Board on paperwork filed by cherry producers. Producers will be asked to note whether they’re freezing cherries to be dried, or freezing them for other purposes.
“Now, so that everyone in the industry has a better perspective of where things are and what is happening, we’ve segmented those two component parts,” said Perry Hedin, the executive director for the Cherry Board.
The change hasn’t yet been implemented; it awaits federal approval.
Bob Sutherland, president of northern Michigan’s iconic Cherry Republic, knows well the dried cherry’s appeal.
“I think dried cherries are our flagship product and one of our core products that so many of our items are derived from,” said Sutherland. “We mix dried cherries with nuts, put chocolate on them, we bake with them. The great thing about a dried cherry is it goes with everything.”
The change in producers’ documentation may be minor, but it speaks to a larger trend in the industry.
“The lion’s share of our tart cherries go to drying,” said Jon Veliquette, president of Great Lakes Packing Company in Kewadin.
Veliquette estimated that less than 25 percent of his cherries were dried 10 years ago, while now more than three-quarters are dried.
Frozen cherries arrive at drying facilities already mixed with some sugar, said Tom Berg, director of marketing at Shoreline Fruits, a local dried fruit producer. They’re then infused with water and more sugar or another sweetener, and then fed through a dryer that brings the moisture level down to 1 or 2 percent, Berg said.
“If it’s being used in cereal or breakfast bar or consumed straight as a snack, the moisture levels may vary,” Berg said.
Cherry producers think that knowing more about the industry’s frozen product could be helpful.
“I think that it will help the industry understand utilization of frozen cherries better going forward,” said Brian Mitchell, president and general manager of Cherry Growers Inc. in Grawn. “I think it just helps in supply management and what we call cherry pack plans at the beginning of harvest.”
The tart cherry’s growth in popularity was helped along by the Cherry Marketing Institute, a group that promotes cherries.
The Institute started investing in tart cherry research about 15 years ago, the president of the group, Phil Korson, said. That research literally bore fruit about six years ago, when that institute-commissioned research suggested that tart cherries are high in antioxidants, act as anti-inflammatories, and may offer heart health benefits.
The research opened the door for the Institute to market tart cherries as a superfruit, like pomegranates or blueberries.
The institute began to promote potential health benefits of dried cherries, cherry juice and frozen cherries, as opposed to the pies and other desserts in which tart cherries usually were consumed.
“It was a huge change from the standpoint that it’s brought our industry closer to the customer,” said Korson.