— -- Along the shores of Lake Michigan in Traverse City the tart cherry is king. The area produces more tart cherries than anywhere in America, with 32,000 acres planted across the state.
The tart cherries love Lake Michigan, which acts like a blanket for the cherry blossoms. In spring, the sensitive fruit is extremely susceptible to frost and the lake adds cloud cover to insulate the bud from breaking too early.
“We're pretty far north, that's the thing, When you look at it, we're at the 45th parallel,” says Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Research Center, which studies tart cherries.
"People ask, 'How do you grow things like wine grapes or cherries?' It's because we have Lake Michigan that moderates our climate.”
But growing cherries in Michigan is a year-round job that comes with great risk. A farmer can have perfect weather all season and then a 15-minute hail storm in spring can destroy much of their crop.
“It's just one of those things that's part of farming and agriculture and people have accepted the risk over time,” says Jeff Andresen, a climatologist at Michigan State University.
The sensitivity to the weather has driven some farmers, including Brian Tennis, away from cherries and over to hops, the plant used to make beer.
“We started with organic sweet cherries and that was just a mess,” says Tennis, “You could do everything right with sweet cherries or cherries in general, and something would happen right before harvest.”
He adds: “Hops are, I mean, these guys are rock stars. It could snow tomorrow and they'd be fine.”
Once a major of producer of hops in the 19th century, Michigan is back on the hops map.
“There's over 1,000 acres in the state,” says Tennis. “That now puts us top four in the nation and top 10 in the world in growing hops. That's just within a decade.”
With 32,000 acres, the tart cherry isn’t about to be dethroned, but the hop is back in Michigan.
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