SISTER BAY, Wis. – Walk into Cherry Republic's store in the heart of the nation's biggest tart cherry producing region, and you could end up with jam or salsa with fruit that had to be imported from Poland.
Cherry Republic can't get enough tart cherries from its local orchards because 97 percent of Michigan's crop was destroyed this year by a freak weather pattern. An unseasonably warm March that caused trees to bud was followed by an April freeze that killed the blossoms.
Trees in New York and Wisconsin, which have smaller but still significant tart cherry harvests, suffered the same weather damage.
Prices usually skyrocket when farmers take that kind of a loss, or in severe cases consumers might just have to give up on a fruit for a season. But that won't happen in this case because of some unique factors in the tart cherry industry. As a result, cherry processors are scrambling to get what fruit they can, sometimes from Poland or Turkey, and taking a financial hit in an effort to keep prices low.
Tart cherries are different from sweet cherries, the variety sold fresh at farmers markets and in grocery stores. Most tart cherries are dried or canned and used as ingredients in pies, granola and trail mix. While sweet cherries are mainly grown on the West Coast, 70 percent of the nation's tart cherries come from Michigan.
The problem for tart cherry growers and the companies that dry or can the fruit is that it can be easily replaced by cranberries, blueberries or raspberries — and each group of fruit growers has its own industry marketing group ready to capitalize on the others' failures.
When tart cherries had a poor harvest in 2002 and dried cherry prices went up, companies that make granola, scones and other foods simply substituted other fruit, said Terry Sorenson, the president of the Wisconsin Cherry Growers Association.
"It took us a long time to bring sales back after 2002. That's definitely a concern this year," he said. To avoid a repeat, the cherry industry will try to keep its prices as stable as possible this year. Companies hope to make a profit, but if not, to at least keep their customers.
Businesses such as Kellogg Co., which makes cherry Nutri-Grain bars, and Kashi, which produces cherry dark granola bars, wouldn't say whether they are scouting for cherry alternatives or considering raising their prices due to the shortage.
Companies such as Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, Mich., however, don't have the option of switching fruit since their whole focus is tart cherries. Owner Bob Sutherland said he plans to import cherries from Poland to get through the year.
"The Polish variety is a little darker, a little firmer after cooking but it's very similar in flavor" to the U.S. variety, Sutherland said. "For me, going to Poland was a no-brainer."
He raised the prices on a 1-pound bag of dried cherries from $14.50 to $18.95, and chocolate-covered cherries went from $13.95 to $16.95. But Sutherland held prices steady on his other cherry products: salsas, jams, salad dressings and barbecue sauces.
"We might have smaller margins," he said, "but we want to keep our customers."
Jamie Roster, the owner of the Cherry Stop in Traverse City, Mich., faced the same dilemma. She ended up raising her price for dried cherries from $10 per pound to $15.95 because she felt she couldn't afford to take a loss. In the weeks since, she has seen sales fall 10 percent.
"That's been our biggest price increase by far," said Roster, who is also considering buying cherries from Poland. "Since we've owned the business for the past seven years, prices have maybe gone up $1 per pound. So a $6 increase over one month is pretty phenomenal."
Those most likely to profit from the mess in the Midwest are tart cherry growers in Utah. The state is typically the nation's No. 2 tart cherry producer, but this year it will be No. 1 because its trees are mostly in good shape. And, the prices paid to farmers are skyrocketing.
Dale Seaquist, whose family produces about 60 percent of the tart cherries grown in Wisconsin and owns a processing plant, said he expects growers to get more than $1 a pound for their fruit this year, more than twice as much as usual.
"The buyers are crazy to get them," he said. "They want them real bad."
He kept a close watch on the temperature this spring but said there wasn't much he could do to save the crop developing on the approximately 120,000 trees his family owns throughout Door County, a popular Wisconsin tourist area.
"It's sort of a sickening feeling when ... you're watching the thermometer and the temperature is going down, down, down," Seaquist said. "And you know if it goes down another degree or two, it's going to take care of the profit for the rest of the year."
Some orchards were OK, but most were not. The crop was uneven, with some trees completely bare, while others right next to them were filled with cherries.
Seaquist figures his family will end up with 10 percent of what they'd get in a typical year. A federal forecast predicts Wisconsin's total harvest will be about 7 percent of what it was last year.
Sutherland, in Michigan, said the year has been so bad that he's even calling a truce with the growers he considers his main competition. He now suggests cherry recipes that include half cherries and half cranberries.
"We have signed a temporary truce with cranberries for one year only," he said, somewhat in jest. But, he added, "Our century-old battle with cranberries will never be over. In 2013, we will be back knocking them silly in the marketplace."
Cherry Republic: http://www.cherryrepublic.com
Cherry Stop: http://www.thecherrystop.com
Seaquist Orchards: http://www.seaquistorchards.com