BY MARK URBAN
TRAVERSE CITY — Long-time Leelanau County fruit farmer Dave Alpers heard old stories of the cherry crop that wasn't before he was born, and suffered through it himself ten years ago.
This year, he's afraid it's going to happen again.
While many people enjoyed the record-setting warm temperatures during mid-March in northern Michigan, area fruit farmers didn't.
"In 1945 there wasn't a crop of significance in northern Michigan," said Alpers, who has 550 acres of tart cherries and 100 acres of sweets in Leland and Suttons Bay townships. "Then in 2002, we didn't have a crop. I was told in 2002 that it only happens once in your lifetime.
"Well, it looks like it's going to happen twice in my lifetime."
Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, said a lot of variables are working against fruit growers this year.
"I had a grower tell me the other day that we just can't seem to catch a break this year," Rothwell said. "When we warm up and we go into the bloom at the end of March, you know you're setting yourself up for a lot of challenges. Even when we bloom in May, we still know we have to sweat out May with no frost. Now we have April and May and we still have May to go yet. That's the problem with this year."
Rothwell said there seems to be a wide range of damage to cherry trees based on her conversations with growers.
"There's some variability between areas," Rothwell said. "I think that some areas are definitely harder hit than others. I was just driving to work from my house north of Suttons Bay down to the Research Station, which is about seven miles, eight miles and things look pretty rough. The blossoms are supposed to be white and they are definitely brown.
"But I talked to a grower (Thursday) from the Antrim County area and I know some areas in northern Antrim are pretty tough, but they were actually cleaning up some of the trees from the storm and this guy was climbing around in the tree and there was still some fruit in the tops of the trees in tart cherries," she said.
Alpers hasn't seen much variation.
"Right now, at this point in time, there's significant damage out there," Alpers reported. "There's probably 80-90 percent bud kill on (tart) cherries. There's also more kills on apples than I thought. There's probably 40-60 percent bud kill on apples.
"It's huge. I've been from Northport to Empire in orchards the last couple of weeks and it's everywhere. It doesn't matter where you're at."
Rothwell said the cold temperatures and frost aren't just hard on the blossoms.
"Even if you did have some good buds, days like (Friday) are horrible for bees," she said. "You're just going to get no pollination. Bees just aren't going to fly. I was out in orchards all day yesterday and I saw maybe eight bees in like eight hours."
While the cherry and apple forecasts are gloomy, Rothwell said wine grapes may have avoided significant damage.
Strawberries also seemed to have avoided major damage, she said. But there may be an early harvest before some of the tourist market arrives.
Rothwell said the cherry industry may also need to adapt, especially if weather abnormalities become the norm.
"I think it's important to monitor those trends, because (Alpers) is exactly right. That once-in-a-lifetime thing has happened two times (since 2002)," she said.