TRAVERSE CITY — It’s the reason for the season.
“The Cherry Connection” at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County offers National Cherry Festival-goers a glimpse behind the midway and the downtown treats to the little red fruit behind it all.
“It’s where the farm meets the festival,” said Steve Patmore, a volunteer organizer at the station.
More than 400 people a day make the trek 10 miles outside of town to the horticulture station operated by Michigan State University Extension. There they can sample cherry products, learn more about the history of the cherry industry in northern Michigan, and take a tour that highlights some of the latest research benefiting northern Michigan farmers.
Heather Burch, of Traverse City, brought her two daughters to the station to learn more about the cherry industry. Burch said she remembers going to visit a farm during the festival when she was young, but it was time for a refresher course. They were headed to the pie-making contest later in the day, and the orchard tour provided some insight into the key ingredient.
“They’ve never been here before,” she said of her daughters. “I just thought we’d check it out. It’s something different.”
The tour groups traveling through the rolling Leelanau County hills had to use a bit of imagination this year; the March heat wave and subsequent frosts decimated most of this year’s cherry crop.
“These trees have not been harvested, but they look like they were,” said Duke Elsner, an agricultural educator for Grand Traverse County’s extension office who led the orchard tour. “You won’t find much of anything happening because we had the most devastating crop-production year that anyone can recall.”
Still, the tour highlighted some of the research projects under way, including tests of different grape vine and cherry tree varieties, and a new section dedicated to hops. They are even testing wildflower varieties to encourage native bees to help in pollination.
“Fruit crops primarily bloom early in the year, but the honey bees we bring don’t like to fly when its cold or windy. Some native bees do, so the more we can get native bees involved in pollination, the better,” he said.
Elsner said the station provides the time and resources necessary for long-term research that farmers would not have access to otherwise.
“Doing research on tree fruit is a very slow process, and farmers could never afford to give up much of their acreage or their space or their time to do that type of research on their own,” he said. “It’s a perfect mission for the university.”
Larry and Teri Smith, of Clinton, are in the middle of a 10-day tour of western Michigan. Each has a background agriculture, and they wanted to learn more about the cherry industry in Leelanau County. They were surprised to find out about the station’s other efforts with hops and grapes.
“I also found it interesting how they’re trying to get the cherry trees smaller and bushier,” Teri said, of the station’s research into dwarf root stocks. Smaller trees make it easier to pick fruit without damaging the plant or the cherry.
Patmore said the Cherry Connection provides an important perspective into farmers behind all the hoopla in July.
“Farmers are the greatest people in the world,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize here.”
TRAVERSE CITY — It’s the reason for the season.
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