Jan 20, 2017Cherry processing options expand in variety
Everything’s coming up cherries in northern lower Michigan.
The state produces about 75 percent of the U.S. supply of tart cherries, said Philip J. Korson, president of the Michigan-based Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI), with 50 percent of that supply coming out of the northern part of its Lower Peninsula.
“We have the capacity in northwest Michigan for about 180 million pounds, so it’s a big production region,” Korson said. “When everything comes in, we can produce a lot of cherries.”
Farmers in that region of the mitten have made it their business to not only grow the fruit, but ensure there’s a market for it – one that has adapted as consumer demand has changed.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is that the growers have become the processors and they develop retail products and distribute and sell those products … and develop that customer base,” Korson said.
While all of the fruit still goes to processing, it’s what happens to it after that has evolved. There’s still a market for pie filling, but the bakery segment both in the United States and abroad has been declining. Meanwhile, the Cherry Marketing Institute stepped back about 10 years ago and took a hard look at what the future held for tart cherries. That’s driven what’s turned out to be a successful marketing campaign that positions the tart cherry as a “superfruit.”
“While we were primarily a bakery ingredient, we felt that we needed to be more innovative – that we needed to develop more products … expand our customer base,” said Korson, a long-time fruit grower himself.
Drawing on what until then had been mostly anecdotal evidence that Montmorency cherries have health benefits, CMI commissioned studies with the intent of proving it. Those findings helped the institute position the tart cherry as reducing the risk of heart disease and soothing arthritis symptoms and post-workout muscle pain, among other benefits.
“That’s really been the driver for us to get national media and move us into the position where the tart cherry today is really known as the cherry with more,” Korson said. “It’s kind of the pillar of our marketing program today.”
And that “cherry with more” comes in a variety of forms that include dried, which are in demand as a snack in themselves or as an ingredient in everything from trail mixes to granola bars and cereals; juice; value-added and specialty products; and dietary supplements.
From farm to processing
Don Gregory is a good example of the evolution of cherry processing in northwestern lower Michigan. He and his brother joined forces with the Veliquette brothers, northern Michigan cherry growers, in the early 1970s. It didn’t take too much “moving cherries in a lot of different directions” for them to realize they could do better by processing the cherries themselves. They built a plant in Kewadin, Michigan, to house those operations.
Even as they expanded their own acreage and took on harvesting for growers who didn’t want to invest in the new technology that was mechanizing the process, they decided to get into producing individually quick frozen (IQF) cherries.
“The traditional way of freezing cherries (had been) putting cherries 25 pounds in a bucket, putting a 5-pound sugar cap on them in order to keep them from oxidizing, and into the freezer,” Gregory said. “IQF is going through a freezing tunnel, where they are frozen individually.”
For that, they utilize a plant in Hart, Michigan.
“We work together with some vegetable growers (at the Hart location),” he said. “We’re in there strictly for tart cherry season five to six weeks in the summer, then they run vegetables the rest of the year. It’s made that efficient use of the IQF tunnel.”
Eventually, the two families separated their farm operations while continuing to share processing. That expanded to the formation of a co-op they named Shoreline Fruit Growers, which has become the largest tart cherry grower in North America, according to Director of Marketing Tom Berg.
“We have over 6,000 acres of tart cherry trees, and we average between 25 and 30 million pounds annually,” Berg said.
Seeing the dried cherry market growing, Shoreline acquired a drying plant in New York and relocated it to Yuba, Michigan.
“A majority of the cherries that go through Shoreline Fruit Growers are now further processed at that facility into dried cherries or into juice concentrate or nutraceutical powder,” he said.
Those products are marketed under the Cherry Bay Orchard label via Shoreline Fruit, which the company established in 2008 to be its sales and marketing arm.
“Our nation is moving away from being dessert oriented to being snack oriented, so getting into the dried cherry business made sense,” Gregory said. “It’s the fastest-growing part of the business.”
And it’s growing beyond U.S. boundaries.
“A lot of our growth has come from distribution around the world,” Berg said. “We’re continuing to expand our export markets for dried and concentrate and powder. We’re having success in China, Japan, the UK.”
Korson said that today, nearly all of the crop gets frozen or canned, with frozen being the biggest category.
“Even fruit that is dried is frozen first, then dried over the next 12 months,” he said. “Dried cherries make up about 40 percent of the industry, and is growing.”
Value-added gourmet products
Also seeing success are a couple of specialty foods purveyors who started small and have helped put tart cherries on the map.
Justin Rashid is probably the pioneer. Thirty-five years ago, he began building his Petoskey, Michigan-based American Spoon Foods around the concept of sourcing locally grown produce to create preserves, fruit spreads, sauces, condiments and the like. To Rashid, cherries were a no-brainer.
“The thing that really struck me when I started out all those years ago … was just that the fruit wasn’t getting its due,” he said. “I kind of pride myself on seeing where there’s more value than the marketplace is really recognizing, and that was my feeling about tart cherries in Michigan.
“They were being treated like this commodity and thrown into cans with a lot of corn starch and red No. 40 and preservatives, and sometimes you’d even see things like – God forbid – almond extract in there, so the true authentic flavor and texture of the fruit itself was not being presented to the consumers in a way that really respected how wonderful it was in itself.
“That became our mission, to reacquaint our customers with cherries.”
American Spoon created a line of preserves and spoon fruit products using high fruit content and natural sweeteners, including varieties made from tart cherries. The company also produces fruit butters and granolas. Rashid said American Spoon was the first to offer dried tart cherries in retail packages, as well as to market them as an ingredient for chefs and specialty foods.
“We put Michigan cherries in a huge number of our products and they are always among our best-selling products,” Rashid said. “People buy the hell out of it.”
American Spoon’s business is thriving, with online sales and five retail stores.
Newer on the scene is Bob Sutherland, who has created a kingdom of cherries with his company, Cherry Republic. He started small by developing and selling cookies he named Boomchunka, of which dried cherries were a star ingredient.
“I was wholesaling to 100 stores around northern Michigan,” he said.
That grew to bagging dried and chocolate- covered cherries. Which led to a small storefront n picturesque Glen Arbor, on the shores of Lake Michigan; which led to a small cherry jam-making and processing space in the back of the store; which led to expanding his cherry offerings and outsourcing production to other processors; which led to leasing a space for his own processing facility.
In 2016 the company opened a 25,000-square- foot processing facility in Empire, Michigan, with about 60 employees. Finally, Cherry Republic is producing its own products including jams, sauces, barbecue sauces, salad dressing, granolas, dry mixes and baked goods, along with bagging dried cherries, all under one roof. They’re sold online as well as in stores, which include five in Michigan along with partners around the country.
“There was a time when there were more cherries than demand,” Sutherland said. “We weren’t valuing that fruit as much as we do today. We’re really proud of how we’ve made it more covetable and accessible and shown all the different uses for it.”
Gregory offers similar sentiments.
“Fifteen years ago, the major complaint cherry growers had was you couldn’t find cherries any place in the country,” he said. “Today, I believe you can probably find some form of cherries in almost every major supermarket throughout the country. The growth has gone away from eating cherry pie to eating cherries in different forms. In order for the industry to thrive, we have to change with it.”
— Kathy Gibbons, FGN Correspondent