Cherry farmer dumps his frustration

Posted on August 16th, 2009 Admin

Leonard Ligon stands in mounds of tart cherries that he had to dump because of government regulations. Douglas Tesner/Record-Eagle

Millions of pounds of fruit left on the ground to rot

Traverse City Record-Eagle
OLD MISSION — Life on the farm is no bowl of cherries for farmer Leonard Ligon — nor profitable in the cherry business.

Ligon, and many other tart cherry growers in northwest Michigan who produced a bumper crop this summer, will leave millions of pounds of cherries on the ground to rot. A federal marketing order will divert 42 percent the estimated 300 million-plus pound tart cherry harvest from going to the primary domestic market this year. Area growers estimate 20 percent to 25 percent of their crop will be abandoned.

Instead of shaking his cherries off trees and leaving them to rot in the field, Ligon dumped his 72,000 pounds of “diverted” cherries along Old Mission Road with a sign that read “Traverse City, cherry capital of the world.”

“All I’m saying to the tourists and joggers and others in this town is that life on the farm is not always profitable,” Ligon said, “and we’re losing our (cherry) producers.”

Ligon said he’s leaving the tart cherry business as fast as he can. Instead of replanting orchards with cherries he’s putting in wine grapes. He doubts many growers will replant orchards on Old Mission Peninsula.

“The farther I get away from the tart cherry business the better as far as I’m concerned,” said cherry grower and Peninsula Township Supervisor Rob Manigold. “My whole focus right now is to convert to wine grapes.”

Manigold said the cherry business is like no other. Growers take their fruit to processors for whatever they will give them, then have to wait a year until the processors sell the cherries before they get paid.

Wine grapes generate cash within 30 days, he said.

Conversion to grapes is expensive, however, so Manigold isn’t going to tear out productive orchards that can last 25 or 30 years. Manigold’s processor took 100 percent of his cherries this year, so he’ll either break even or make a small profit.

Old Mission cherry grower Joshua Wunsch had similar success with his fruit processor, and has no plans to convert to grapes.

“I looked pretty hard at the economics of wine grape growing, but it seems that most of the return there is at the press and bottling,” Wunsch said.

Wunsch estimates about 20 percent of one of the largest tart cherry crops in years will be abandoned in the fields this year. Abandonment is just one type of diversion. Cherries exported overseas, dried, turned into juice concentrate, sold in new markets or stored for future use are also considered diverted.

Perry Hedin, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board in Dewitt that sets the market restrictions, said a 300-million pound bumper crop in 1995 that lacked market restrictions dropped the price of cherries to 5 cents a pound or less.

This year, growers expect about 20 cents a pound, down from almost 40 cents a pound last year.

“You have to match supply with demand in the domestic industry … or the market price drops to about zero,” Hedin said.

Hedin said he still sees a lot of young orchards around Traverse City, and the market continues to expand with new uses every year.

In the past Old Mission farmers, because of their ability to produce consistent crops, hit the jackpot when the national crop failed, Wunsch said. But the result was they lost market to other fruits.

The ability to stabilize prices and store fruit for poor crop years has allowed the industry to maintain its traditional market while expanding other areas, such as juice concentrate.

“About 20 percent of the crop is going into cherry juice concentrate and it’s growing rapidly,” Wunsch said. “It’s a market segment that a dozen years ago wasn’t a blip on the radar.”

Still, leaving fruit to rot doesn’t set well with most growers and the public in the current economy, Manigold said.

“The food pantry shelves are bare, people going hungry, and here we are dumping millions of pounds of cherries on the ground,” Manigold said.

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