Tart cherry harvest

Tart cherries are plunged into a cold tub of water after being harvested from the trees.

TRAVERSE CITY — Local tart cherry growers are facing cold May weather that could damage this year’s crop.

But they’re applauding this week’s announcement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will buy $20 million worth of U.S. tart cherries for distribution to communities across the country.

The Agricultural Marketing Service during the third quarter of 2020 will purchase a variety of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and seafood products with two goals: help support producers and help feed Americans in need.

The purchases and distributions are in response to changing market conditions caused by the COVID-19 national emergency, a release stated.

“It’s a good thing for the industry,” Cherry Ke CFO Nels Veliquette said of the purchase, which is part of the federal government’s effort to support business during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a good thing for people who need shelf-stable product.”

The government will purchase tart cherries grown in 2019, said Veliquette. They will come from stored stock of dried cherries, because that shelf-stable form is best for easy distribution.

Michigan legislators were instrumental in getting cherries added to the list of commodities utilized in the program to feed Americans in he wake of the pandemic.

Rep. “Jack Bergman has worked really hard on this,” said Veliquette. “He’s been the conduit to the USDA for a long time now. It’s just another example of working with the local farms, the local politicians, to actually get something done in Washington.”

Growers welcomed news of the government purchase against the backdrop of a spring that has delivered disappointing weather.

“In a season where we’ve already seen some crop damage downstate, and this week looks like it could be a little nippy up here in our vulnerable stage, for the long term prospects for the cherry market, (the purchase) is a good thing,” Veliquette said.

Two weeks, ago, southern Michigan saw some cold temperatures, Veliquette said, which resulted in significant crop damage in southwest Michigan and some damage in south central Michigan.

“Looking at the forecast for this week and where the buds are here in northern Michigan, it looks like there’s potential” for crop damage, he said. “If it gets below 27 degrees for any amount of time this week at night, that will definitely affect some cherries.”

Despite this week’s chill, local farmers’ hearts are warmed by the knowledge that their produce will help feed Americans.

“I think northern Michigan growers should be very happy that our fruit is going to help with the recovery aid for people around the country who are suffering because of COVID-19 and other related issues,” said Leelanau County cherry grower Ben LaCross.

Bergman, meanwhile, said lawmakers’ cherry industry support efforts continue.

“As we work towards additional relief for northern Michigan’s tart cherry growers and processors, this $20 million investment will help stabilize the industry,” Bergman said in a release. “I will continue coordinating with the (President Donald) Trump Administration to ensure our tart cherry industry can bounce back from this crisis.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $9.5 billion for agricultural producers impacted by COVID-19, including specialty crop producers, producers that supply local food systems, and livestock producers.

In April, Bergman co-signed a letter with Reps. Dan Kildee, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar, and Fred Upton to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting coronavirus-related relief for Michigan’s tart cherry industry.

The letter stated, in part: “Relief is needed immediately as the coronavirus pandemic has stripped Michigan cherries of their markets and imposed new challenges on production.”

Commodities purchased through the program will be used to feed Americans in need.

“This purchase announcement was made at a very critical time for the tart cherry industry,” Cherry Marketing Institute President Julie Gordon said in a release. “We have substitutional inventory that now can be provided to families in need during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Other purchases announced Monday include $5 million for asparagus, $5 million for pears, $25 million orange juice, $30 million catfish products, $30 million chicken, $30 million pork, $35 million strawberries, $50 million potatoes, $120 million dairy products and varying amounts for other commodities.