May 8, 2018
Growers tap fresh market for sweet cherries

What is the future of fresh market sweet cherries in Michigan and how does the industry get there?

“It’s hard to put a number on the potential market for dark, fresh, sweet cherries,” said Isaiah Wunsch of Isaiah Wunsch Farm at Traverse City, Michigan. “After August 1 and beyond is the late season market I’m shooting for.”

“That late-season push is an attractive window,” said Justin Finkler, operations manager of Riveridge Produce Marketing at Sparta, Michigan. “If we can deliver the quality, we can sell fruit at premium prices to our customers.”

Justin Finkler is operations manager of Riveridge Produce Marketing at Sparta, Michigan. Photos: Gary Pullano

“We’re getting requests from new customers we’ve never sent a box to before,” said Adam Dietrich of Leo Dietrich and Sons of Conklin, Michigan.

“We sold some sweet cherries in Detroit last summer at $30 a box when other sweet cherries were selling at $20 a box,” said John King of King Orchards at Central Lake, Michigan. “Having the name ‘Michigan’ on the box makes a difference.”

These and other views on growing fresh market, sweet cherries in Michigan were discussed by a grower and processor panel at the recent Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Ten-row size is our target,” Finkler said. “If you go from an 11-row to a nine-row block, it takes 36 percent fewer cherries to make a pound. You can’t plant small cherry varieties for fresh market.”

Irrigation is crucial to hitting your size targets,” Wunsch said.

“It’s irrigation for us,” Dietrich said. “We’re looking for 25-millimeter or bigger.” Horticultural practices, such as pruning and removing pendant wood that produces small cherries year after year, is also important. Pruning at the right time – in August – also minimizes canker on high-density sweet cherries.

“The processing price has pushed us into the fresh market,” Dietrich said. “For fresh sweet cherries, you can get $1 for a poor pack-out, $1.80 for a good pack-out and maybe even $2.”
“A lot of our existing cherries are on Mazzard,” Wunsch said. “We’re not moving into high-density sweet cherries as quickly as others, but the paradigm is shifting quickly. We’ve got to find the key to lower our prices.”

“We have a strong U-pick market on our farm,” King said. The strategy in the past has been to produce dark sweet cherries with the highest sugar content possible. A new strategy may be to harvest sooner for the wholesale market. “Maybe we can market dark cherries a little earlier,” King said.

“We can ramp up pretty quickly to meet our customer needs,” Dietrich said. Leo Dietrich and Sons ran about 850,000 pounds of sweet cherries over its packing line last season. The plan is to run 1 million pounds over the line in 2018 and up to 2 million pounds in five years – if the operation can get the production.

An apple customer recently asked Dietrich and Sons for sweet cherries, was satisfied with the results, and now wants to open a second distribution center.

“We’ve got to hit the brakes because we don’t have the supply,” Dietrich said.

“Quality is imperative,” Wunsch said. “If you can consistently pick quality, customers will come.”

“We’re a little more south in Michigan so we harvest in July and run into more Washington production,” Dietrich said. “We have to compete on quality and the relationships with our customers.”

“We purchased some farms farther north,” Finkler said. This will better position Riveridge for the late-season market. “We’ll be planting about 40,000 trees over the next couple of years,” Finkler said.

“Almost all of our plantings are on Gisela 6,” King said. “They fill the row quickly. Hitting a nine-row cherry is always a possibility.”

The production at King Orchards is still stem-off, but that will change. “We’re all stem-off right now and sell to other farm markets. It’s our objective to move to all stem-on,” King said.

“Stem-on has the biggest potential for growth,” Wunsch said. “We’re pretty much stem-off. There’s a niche market for growers in Michigan with stems off.”

“We used H-2A labor in 2017,” Dietrich said. “We couldn’t find adequate local labor. We had 40 workers to pick our cherries this year. We pick directly to scale on the lug so we know exactly how much was picked in a day.”

“Building more housing is in our growth plan,” Wunsch said.

“Some growers use custom labor and technically that’s what we used with our H-2A labor,” Dietrich said. “The contractor we work with is very good and is someone we trust. He lets us look at his books. He follows the rules and that trust is important.”

“We’d like to add a modern, cherry grader,” Wunsch said. “As we add associate growers, we need the technology to provide feedback.”

“It’s going to come to varieties,” Dietrich said. “You have these varieties that do well some years and some years they don’t. I think we’re going to have to bite the bullet and phase them out.”

“The apple industry has really modernized in the last 10 years and it provides a model for the sweet cherry industry,” Wunsch said. “Sweet cherry growers were each on their own little island 10 years ago and now work together.”

That cooperation must continue for Michigan growers to succeed in the fresh market for sweet cherries.

Dean Peterson, FGN Correspondent

Above: A young block of sweet cherries on a Riveridge Produce Produce Marketing farm. Photos: Gary Pullano


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