Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Researchers probe impact of climate change on tart cherry industry

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By STEVE DAVY
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite the global nature of modern industries there has never been a study measuring the impact of climate change across an industry.

Until now.

A $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant will help an international research team study the impact of climate change on the tart cherry industry.

The aim of the five-year study is to provide growers with a global perspective. Those in the northern Lower Peninsula and Eastern Europe will be able to see how climate change affects their orchards in a way that reflects the growing international nature of their industry.

The grant to Michigan State University follows a 2003 award from the Environmental Protection Agency that the university used to assess the relationships between climate change and Michigan’s tart-cherry and tourism industries.

About 70 percent of the United States’ tart cherries, which are used primarily in drinks and desserts, come from Michigan. Nowhere else in the world produces more tart cherries as a region than the Traverse City area in the northwest Lower Peninsula.

The state’s top-producing counties are Leelanau, Antrim, Grand Traverse, Oceana and Berrien, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture .

It’s a good industry to study because cherry orchards are sensitive to weather and require long-term investment – about a 20-to-30 year commitment, according to Julie Winkler, an MSU climatologist. Cherry growers have limited flexibility compared to farmers who grow annual cereal grains and can plant something different the next year.

In 2002, a devastating late spring frost almost completely wiped out the tart cherry crop in Michigan. Imports from Poland filled the market demand.

That prompted Winkler and MSU geographer Jeff Andresen, to study climate change and the state’s tart-cherry and tourism industries.  Their Pileus Project, named for the type of cloud that symbolizes the capstone nature of the project, created computer models relating climate to production and economic consequences.

The freeze and resulting imports raised awareness that the industry is increasingly global.

“When we were talking to the tart cherry growers, off-hand they said, ‘What about Poland? What’s going to happen in Poland?’” Winkler said.

Importing cherries from Poland in 2002 was a rare event, recalls farmer Jim Bardenhagen of Suttons Bay. The concern is that rare events might become more frequent.

Models like the one the MSU research team is developing could help him make better informed business decisions, he said. “It’s definitely something to look at. Climate change is kind of concerning.

“With warmer temperatures, we might not be able to grow the same kind of cherries,” Bardenhagen said. And that might enable potential competitors to grow cherries further north.

Now Winkler and her colleagues will look at the effects of climate change across the entire industry to get a better idea of how the Poland and Michigan industries influence each other.

“What we are trying to do here is come up with a method that gives us the type of detail that stakeholders in the industry need that you would have for a traditional local/regional sector, but then try and have this global focus,” Winkler said.

Climate change is hard to notice because it takes place over decades.

Don Gregory, a founding member of Traverse City-based Shoreline Fruit and a tart cherry farmer for almost 40 years, says the best evidence is what’s happened to his own harvest dates.

The harvest traditionally peaks around June-July. “We’ve had some years where we’ve started harvesting on July 4th and finished harvesting cherries as early as the last week of July, “Gregory said.

“We had other years like this year where we actually finished harvesting cherries in the middle of August — that was almost 25 days later than last year. We see these variations on a year-to-year basis. A lot of the variation in crops is weather-related issues.”

It used to be common for Grand Traverse Bay to freeze over in the winter. Now the bay consistently remains unfrozen. An unfrozen bay results from warmer winter weather that usually means an earlier blossoming of tart cherry trees. With earlier buds, cherries are more vulnerable to damage from a late spring freeze.

Brian Beauchamp, a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City, says climate change is likely the cause of the warmer winters and affects agriculture in northern Michigan.

“Climate change raises a lot of questions,” Beauchamp said. “How do farmers adapt and change? It is important to bring together the regional agricultural sector under a common theme of resilience.”

Steve Davy writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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