By James Russell
TRAVERSE CITY —
The National Cherry Festival will have more than enough local flavor this year, despite a devastating drop in the local cherry crop.
A March heat wave, a late-winter storm and widespread frost damage decimated much of the local cherry crop this spring, but no matter dire prognostications, surviving cherries will be on hand during the eight-day festival that kicks off today.
“There were pockets of cherries that survived,” said Maria Lammers, owner of Gallagher’s Farm Market, which supplies cherries for the festival along with Edmondson Orchards. She said Gallagher’s lost about 70 percent of their crop this year.
“Two months ago, we thought they’d be virtually nonexistent. We were talking about bringing in West Coast cherries. But we’ll be able to supply the festival with local,” Lammers said.
That’s sweet news to Trevor Tkach, executive director of the festival, who said local cherries will be used at events like the pit-spitting contest and for the signature cherry crumble pie.
It’s Tkach’s first year heading the event, and he’s excited to get underway.
“I just want to see it happen,” Tkach said. “It’s kind of like being an expecting father, and I’m sitting in the waiting room ... there’s a great deal of anticipation.”
The week before the festival is always crunch time for organizers and volunteers, and this year they had to struggle through blistering heat. Temperatures climbed into the mid-90s for much of the week.
“The volunteers have been tremendous, especially in the heat,” Tkach said. “We have a crew dedicated to just driving water to everybody. It’s just been brutal.”
Temperatures are expected to cool today and into the week, welcome news for locals and tourists alike in town for the festival.
Bret and Kim Farrah arrived on Thursday from Tecumseh. It was the first time in Traverse City for both.
“We’re from Texas originally, but we’ve been in Michigan for nine years,” Kim Farrah said. “This is all new to me. Everybody kept saying to me, ‘Go north, go north,’ and this it.”
Dave and Donna Burr, of South Lyon, will take in a few festival events in between scouting for real estate. The couple hopes to retire to Traverse City.
“We like the fact that it’s a pretty big-size town, and there are cultural things to do, and outdoor things. It’s a nice mixture,” Donna Burr said. “We’ve been to the Cherry Festival before. It’s pretty cool — kind of crazy, but it’s nice.”
Some locals also anticipated a week of fun. Lynne Pezza, of Lake Leelanau, said it’s a great time to spend with her children and grandchildren.
“Oh, it’s just incredible. It’s unique,” Pezza said of the festival. “It’s all day, every day” with the family.
Business owners in Traverse City also geared up for a busy week. Nick McAllister, owner of the House of Doggs restaurant, said he waits all year for weeks like the Cherry Festival and Film Festival.
“This is how we survive. All winter we go in debt,” he said.
McAllister said location is everything when it comes to festival business. The restaurant used to lose business during festival week when it was located farther away from the epicenter at the Open Space. Now House of Doggs is just a block south, and McAllister sees a steady stream of hot dog lovers all week.
“That’s partly why I got the spot where I am, so I could tap into that Cherry Festival business,” he said.
But for farmers like Dave Edmondson, the festival is a time to reflect on the cherry industry and it’s importance to the region, even if the local supply was a surprise. They hand-picked about 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of cherries, down from a typical crop of 1.5 million pounds. All those cherries are headed to the festival and his fruit stands.
“I have no explanation for the cherries being here. I’m a fourth-generation farmer, all with all the repeated frosts that we had, there’s no reason why the cherries are here,” Edmondson said. “But for some reason, Mother Nature allowed me to have them. I’m calling them some real survivors.”