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Poor pollination responsible for a drop in Michigan tart cherries


KALAMAZOO, Mich. — An extremely wet spring that caused major delays in planting is having a negative impact on this year’s crop of tart cherries in Michigan.

Michigan, by far the leader in U.S tart cherry production, will see close to a 25 percent drop in production for 2019, according to a newly released USDA forecast. Mark Longstroth, a fruit educator with the Michigan State University extension office at Kalamazoo, said winter cold that wiped out much of the peaches and wine grapes in the state was not a factor in the lower tart cherry yield projections this year.

Instead, he said the rain that seemed to fall constantly this spring discouraged many bees from venturing out to pollinate while tart cherry trees were in full bloom. “The same rains that are keeping the corn and soybean guys out of the fields kept the bees out,” he explained.

USDA projects Michigan to produce 208 million pounds of tart cherries, compared to 264 million pounds in 2018. This year’s crop in Michigan, described by USDA as average, will still be higher than in 2017 when the state produced 189 million pounds.

“We have a decent crop; not a good one,” Longstroth said.

He said most of the losses are in southwestern Michigan, one of the largest producing areas of tart cherries in the state, because of the wet conditions here being more extreme. Going into the season, he expected losses would be from the bitter cold since the polar vortex in late January and February was more severe in southwestern Michigan than other parts of the state.

He was surprised to see plenty of blossoms on the cherry trees. His optimism increased when there was decent weather for pollination early in the blooming season; however, Mother Nature’s spigot came on and didn’t shut off long enough for bees to venture out in their usual numbers to pollinate, before the blossoms dropped from the branches without bearing fruit.

He estimates a 50 percent loss in the southwestern Michigan tart cherry crop in Berrien, Cass, Van Buren, St. Joseph, and Allegan counties near Lake Michigan. About 10-15 percent of the crop losses in that region were from cold-related damage to mostly three-year old cherry trees.

Longstroth said the crop fared much better in other major tart cherry-producing areas of the state, like Traverse City, that weren’t quite as wet this spring.

According to USDA, the 189 million pounds of tart cherries from Michigan in 2017 were nearly four times the amount combined from the next leading U.S. growers, Utah and Washington.

Longstroth said at least 95 percent of the peaches and much of the wine grapes in southwestern Michigan were lost to the bitter cold, while peaches in areas not quite as subzero – such as near Detroit – fared much better.

Right now, he said it appears the extreme cold did not hurt the southwestern Michigan blueberry crop as much as originally anticipated. Blueberries are about as sensitive to minus-20 Fahrenheit temperatures as peaches and wine grapes.

“Blueberries bloomed real well. I expected a lot more winter injury in blueberries than I am seeing,” Longstroth noted.

The score card on the fruit, though, is not fully known. He explained that fruit emerging from any blueberry bushes damaged from extreme winter temperatures will drop to the ground over the next couple weeks prior to reaching maturity.

He said there will also not be a bumper crop of apples because some varieties were also hurt by lack of pollination from the wet spring. There might be fewer strawberries in Michigan for the upcoming season, but the size and quality of those is expected to be excellent because of the wet spring.

Longstroth said this was the third polar vortex to hit Michigan since 2014; the last one prior to that was 1994. “People down here are kind of wondering if either it’s going to be a warm winter or a really cold winter. That messes them all up,” he added.