TRAVERSE CITY — This year’s cherry harvest left many area farmers with a sour taste in their mouths.
A wet spring delayed the start of the season and resulted in an increase of the fungal disease cherry leaf spot. The population increase of the inspect pest spotted wing drosophila, which peaks later in the summer, began during the harvest of the crop.
“It’s been a rough season for sure,” said Nikki Rothwell, extension specialist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in Leelanau County.
“The season dragged out for a long time. Everybody seems ready to put the 2019 season in the books.”
Raymond “Rocko” Fouch took a different approach to the 2019 tart cherry season on his more than 100 acres in three different orchards on Old Mission Peninsula. After 16 of his 22 tanks of cherries from his North Farm were not accepted for use in a high-end juice, Fouch dumped most of the tanks of tart cherries on the ground.
“It takes 25 cents a pound to raise cherries,” Fouch said. “The last three years (the market price) has been under 20 cents with no hope for the future to recover.”
He invited people to stop Friday morning and take tarts from one tank, which holds 1,100 pounds of cherries. The tank was emptied in 90 minutes.
“There has to have been 200 people there,” said Fouch, whose wife, Pam, printed copies of a map to give to those who stopped. “We were sending people down to the farm if they wanted to pick. The people that showed up were so understanding with what’s happening in the tart cherry industry.”
Fouch has a purchase agreement on his 20-acre North Farm and plans to put up his 35-acre orchard on the market this week. Rocko and his wife, Pam, have no plans to sell their 52-acre home farm. And they have no plans to stop farming.
“We’re trying to get it down to — if we have a loss, it doesn’t hurt so much,” Rocko Fouch said.
Fouch is a fourth-generation farmer on Old Mission Peninsula. He said it’s a great lifestyle for families and instills a great work ethic. He works with his son, Nick, but isn’t sure it makes financial sense to pass it on.
“We’d love to have him take it over,” Rocko Fouch said. “But if we can’t make enough money off cherries because we’re both retired, we can’t sell it to him for a price where he can manage it.”
Isaiah Wunsch, who owns and manages 700 acres of farmland, said the price of processed cherries (tarts and light sweet cherries) is 60-65 percent less than it was five years ago.
“Tarts and processed sweet cherries have been pretty depressed for about the last four years,” Wunsch said. “For growers that only have processed cherries, it was a really tough season.”
Fouch laid some of the blame partly on the Cherry Industry Administrative Board’s assessment on every pound of red tart cherries produced. According to the CIAB web site, the organization attempts to “assist the industry in dealing with the erratic production cycle of red tart cherries and to improve returns to the growers and processors of red tart cherries in the United States.”
“There’s 230 million pounds in the freezer before we shook a tree this year,” Fouch said.
Allowing imported cherries to flood the market, particularly government-subsidized fruit from Turkey, also has hurt.
To combat the problem, Wunsch said he went from 350 acres of tart/processed cherries in 2015 to just 50 this year. Even with switching his emphasis to fresh cherries, Wunsch said 2019 was “a mixed bag” for farmers.
He said the 2019 fresh sweet cherry crop was better than 2018, but average overall.
“We’ve had two fairly challenging years in a row,” Wunsch said. “We’ve been poised for growth, but just kind of holding our own.”
“We’ve kind of seen it all in the last two years,” said Rothwell.
The wet spring did provide a positive for new growth, Rothwell said. Wunsch agreed with that assessment, stating it was a “phenomenal year for growing trees.”
Like his fellow cherry growers and farmers in general, Wunsch is hoping the 2020 season is better for those who make their living off the land.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the future,” Wunsch said.