Will climate change kill the Michigan cherry?

Leelanau County farmers Anita and Jeff Send hope that this spring’s extreme weather, which destroyed the local cherry crop, was an aberration.

Do farmers recognize the long-term threat? Can they mitigate and survive?

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

That pie you ate at Cherry Republic last week wasn’t the fruit of a local tart cherry farmer’s labor — not this year, at least. The Glen Arbor retail company’s quick-thinking president Bob Sutherland imported those pie cherries from Poland after extreme weather this spring all but wiped out northern Michigan’s tart cherry crop.

As local scientists warn, and a growing number of Leelanau County farmers are admitting, climate change is wreaking havoc on our agriculture. For the second time in a decade, an unseasonably warm March prematurely lured cherry blossoms out of their buds before typical late-spring nights of frost destroyed them.

The freakish weather ruined nearly all of the 185 million pounds of Montmorency tart cherries that Michigan harvests each summer, sending ripples not only across the mitten state but across the country. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that, while Michigan produces only one fifth of America’s automobiles, we grow three-quarters of the nation’s tart cherries. Total crop losses have been estimated at $223.5 million, thus far.

Sutherland imported 150,000 pounds of “individually quick-frozen” Lutowka cherries from Lublin, Poland, thus averting disaster for Cherry Republic. But local farmers had no such luxury. Don Gregory, president of Cherry Bay Orchards near Suttons Bay, was able to salvage only 3 percent of his tart cherry crop, and he expects 10 percent of a typical sweet cherry harvest. Fellow farmers Jim Nugent is looking at only 15 percent of his sweet cherry crop, and Don Mitchell says he’s down 90-95 percent.

“In addition to the frost coming and killing our blossoms and reducing the quantity of fruit, our cherries picked up bacterial canker disease in a big way,” said another local farmer, Gary Bardenhagen.

Once cherry farmers stomach their losses and prepare their trees for winter, the elephant in the orchard they’ll face is the vexing question of whether this spring’s destruction was caused merely by aberrant extreme weather — a “once-in-a-lifetime freeze-out” — or by global climate change, which could mean warmer winters, more extreme weather events and greater unpredictability.

The problem with the former theory is that we’ve now witnessed two freeze-outs in 11 years (2002 was the last occurrence; you have to date back to 1945 for its predecessor). Farmers can handle a ruined harvest once in their lifetime, so long as they know that years of bumper crops will follow. But what about freeze-outs every decade, or even more frequently than that? Under these conditions, can cherry farmers survive?

“If this pattern continues,” asked Gregory, “will tart cherries become known in northern Michigan as one of the first crops that moved out of the area because of climate change? Those things are in the back of our minds as we continue to plant trees.”

Farmers don’t all agree on whether man-made climate change is to blame for their cherry woes. After all, the climate debate in this country has become a politically loaded fight that often pits liberals and conservatives against one another. Many Midwestern farmers are in the latter camp.

One Leelanau County cherry farmer who doesn’t believe in climate change is Leland resident Don Mitchell, and his view is not unique.

“I don’t think we’ll see an annual repeat of (this year’s freeze-out). That’s a once in a generation occurrence, and I don’t anticipate it happening again,” he offered. “We’ll continue to have a superb microclimate for fruit, because of the rolling hills and the good environment for cherries, grapes and apples. Those crops will continue to be grown here. Because when you put your trees in the ground, you’re making a 25-year commitment.”

On the national political front, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has waffled on whether he believes in man-made climate change (as Massachusetts governor, he acknowledged the threat). But President Obama hasn’t made climate change a cornerstone agenda either — even though a new University of Texas poll shows that 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is real. Meanwhile, wildfires burn out west, a drought across the Midwest is decimating the corn harvest, cities flood from torrential downpours and Texas, as the locals say, has become, “hotter than a stolen tamale”.

“I think more and more growers are realizing that the changes we are seeing reflect climate change,” said Nugent. “Not everyone recognizes that it’s because of man’s activities and burning fossil fuels, but recognition is growing.

“It’s unfortunate to me that politics has gotten so involved in science,” continued Nugent, who compared the fossil fuel industry that bankrolls the climate change-denial campaign with tobacco companies that in past decades lobbied Americans to believe that their cigarettes didn’t cause cancer. “The scientific community quit arguing about man-made climate change 10-15 years ago.”

“There’s no question that our weather patterns in Leelanau County are changing,” said Gregory, who became nostalgic when considering the likelihood of climate change. “I think of the huge snows we had in the 1970s. We missed church four Sundays in a row because there was a snowstorm every weekend. I remember years of high water when Grand Traverse Bay would wash out part of M-22 (between Suttons Bay and Traverse City). Now you have to look far out before you see water.

“The more the evidence piles up, the more people will continue to change their attitudes,” he continued.

What would climate change mean, in general, for northern Michigan? Overnight low temperatures would increase, winters would became sloppier and ski resorts would have to make more snow, according to longtime television meteorologist Dave Barrons. Ice on the lakes would decrease, as evidenced by the Grand Traverse bays freezing only once or twice a decade, whereas they once froze in eight out of 10 winters. Warmer temperatures would cause more wintertime water evaporation, which would shrink water levels and expose more beaches. Rainfall patterns would change, bringing more downpours in the spring and fall, marked by significant dry spells in between. And rising temperatures would allow more insects and pests to survive through mild winters.

At the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich believes that an increase in black-legged ticks (which could carry Lyme disease) reported by Park visitors and rangers might be an effect of climate change. “Some speculate that the rapidity with which their range is expanding might be attributable to warmer temperatures.”

“When the planet is seeking a new heat balance, evidence shows that we could expect day-to-day weather to be erratic,” said Barrons, a trusted name in northern Michigan. “Events like those of this past winter and spring are absolutely to be expected. Some years we’ll still have harsh winters, but those once-a-year storms may now come twice a year. And once-in-a-lifetime crop destruction might happen once a decade.”

Once this dismal farming season ends for Leelanau County cherry farmers, Bardenhagen expects that a reckoning may occur. Every year in late August, Michigan State University’s (MSU) Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center holds an open house for farmers to shoot the bull and compare notes. “I won’t be surprised If there are more who buy in” to the reality of climate change, he predicted.

Research Center Coordinator Nikki Rothwell and MSU Extension launched a program recently to start conversations with growers about the extreme weather elements of climate change, but without drawing political lines in the sand. “In reality, climate change is going to affect farmers first,” said Rothwell. Yet the program has been a mixed bag. When MSU climatologist Jeff Andresen spoke at a luncheon for 200 farmers, there were reportedly grumbles throughout the audience when he mentioned climate change.

Andresen and MSU geography professor Julie Winkler are do-directors of the “Pileus Project”, which focuses on the influence of weather and climate on regional tart cherry production and on grain quality. Andresen and Winkler are reportedly creating sophisticated models relating climate to production and economic consequences for the tart cherry and tourism industries in Michigan. They hope that online tools currently being developed will allow stakeholders in the two industries to better manage their businesses.

“At the time, a lot of folks didn’t think what (Andresen) was saying was all that useful,” said Bardenhagen, who was present at the luncheon. “They didn’t believe that climate change is happening.”

Nugent hopes that attitude is changing among northern Michigan cherry farmers. “I think there is a growing recognition in the community. But recognition is one thing. Figuring out what to do about it is another.”

That question has kept MSU’s Nikki Rothwell busy. How can cherry farmers mitigate climate change — or in the least, extreme weather — when they’ve invested 25 years into their orchards?

When March brings 80-degree weather, as it did this spring, but cold weather follows in its footsteps, Rothwell recommends that farmers use frost fans, which circulate air in an orchard to prevent cold and heavier air from settling on crops and the orchard floor. Irrigation strategies are also used — by strawberry growers in particular — to wet the plants so that the water around them freezes, and not the berries. But some doubt whether that’s possible for fruit trees. The ice coating could weight down cherries, for instance, and kill them. Rothwell even suggests installing heating units to raise temperatures under trees before the frost arrives. She admits that would seem cost-prohibitive. “But this year you would have done it to avoid having your crop wiped out,” she said.

Meanwhile, Michigan State has brought on Amy Iezzoni — the only tart cherry breeder in the country — to examine species of peaches, strawberries and other fruits from around the world in an attempt to identify and isolate a gene for cold resistance, which could hypothetically be incorporated into a tart cherry breed capable of surviving extreme weather in Leelanau County.

Diversifying crops is always a tried and true strategy for farmers to survive a poor harvest, of course, and Rothwell and Barrons both suggested that wine grapes could prove more advantageous than cherries. “There will be winners and losers with climate change,” said the meteorologist. “Grapes will probably ultimately win out over cherries because they’re more durable and can weather frosts.”

But vintner Larry Mawby refutes any notion that climate change would be good for northern Michigan’s expanding wine industry.

“Wine grapes don’t respond quite as rapidly as other horticultural crops to big warm-ups in the winter. That’s why cherries were devastated by the return to normal seasonal weather (and not grapes),” Mawby explained. “But the increasing frequency of violent thunderstorms in the summer and blizzards in the winter will be bad for perennial plants that stick up out of the ground and get beaten up by the wind, and big windstorms during the growing season add weight to the trellises.

“We’ll probably have to look at changing the grape varieties that we grow, because with climate change, some that we have now won’t survive in future. … I’m pretty sure things will be different 100 years from now.”