TRAVERSE CITY -- The region's signature fruit continues to cling to trees, weeks after it was celebrated in pie-eating and pit-spitting contests during the National Cherry Festival.
"It's quite late," said Al Steimel, of Leelanau Fruit Company, who expects to begin processing tart cherries next week, "almost a week later than last year."
This week's rainfall was a setback for an already behind-schedule cherry crop.
"We just got about an inch of rain (Wednesday), which is causing a new degree of pressure and concern because it's compromising the quality of our fruit, which was absolutely stunning ...," said Dave Edmondson, owner of Edmondson Orchards in Traverse City.
Heavy rain can cause cherries to crack, and requires treatment so the fruit doesn't spoil. This week's rain caused the most damage to sweet cherries.
"I've seen a lot of cracking (Thursday) when I was out, which is pretty disturbing," said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.
Once cracks occur, the fruit is at risk of brown-rot, a fungus that thrives in warm, wet weather. And those woes concern growers and processors alike.
"It makes the degree of difficulty of running the plant higher because they're dealing with more defects, so that slows them down," Edmondson said.
This year's harvest still should best last year's numbers, despite weather challenges.
Michigan expects to produce 220 million pounds, up 33 percent from last year. Northern Michigan growers should produce over 160 million pounds of the state's total harvest, representing more than half of the national tart cherry crop.
"The crop appears to be as big as most people have guessed," said Don Gregory, partner of Cherry Bay Orchards in Suttons Bay.
And the rain that roughed up the sweet cherry crop could benefit tart cherries.
"The rain event that happened will hurt our sweet cherry volume because a lot of them will have to be kicked out and thrown away, so that will bring the volume down some," Edmondson said. "But in the tart cherries, it will probably increase the volume per acre."
And tarts soon will dominate farmers' harvest efforts.
"We're just finishing our light sweet cherries, going into our blacks, and on Monday anticipate to begin harvesting the tarts," Edmondson said.
Leelanau County alone counts 9,000 acres of cherry trees, and with a perishable product that's susceptible to the elements, harvesting and processing often resemble chaos.
"It feels like cherry season," Gregory said.