Bringing you the Michigan cherry on top


Ready to learn more about delicious Michigan cherries? Phil Korson, Cherry Marketing Institute president, talks about cherry growing, nutrition and partnering with MSU.

June 14, 2019


Jeff Dwyer: Did you know that Michigan produces about 75% of the tart cherries and 30% of the sweet cherries grown in the United States? In fact, Michigan ranks first in the nation for tart cherry growth largely thanks to the sandy soil and temperate weather conditions along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Although cherry growing comes naturally in the state, that doesn't mean the crop isn't susceptible to pests, weather events and the complications that come with climate change. The Michigan cherry industry needs talented growers and innovative research to continue leading the nation in cherry production. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest on Partnerships in Peninsulas today is Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute. Thanks Phil for being here today.

Phil Korson: You’re welcome Jeff.

Dwyer: So why do we grow cherries in Michigan Phil?

Korson: Michigan is unique in so many different ways, especially the western shore of Michigan. We have the sandy soils and the hilly terrain that's just ideal for cherry production. Tart cherry production and sweet cherry production in the state is very susceptible to frost. Ideal production areas are those hills where frost can drain off those hills. It's a natural way to grow a crop in this state and the sandy soils are perfect for the types of trees that we grow. We need something where the water can drain away from those roots to keep the trees healthy. The environment on the west side of the state is perfect for that. About 43% of the U.S. supply is grown in a three county area in northwest Michigan. 

Dwyer: It's really a fantastic opportunity for Michigan and something that you've been a big part of. I'm struck recently by some of these surveys of kids, and we have listeners of all ages to this podcast. So a recent example was, when asked where does milk come from, they said the store. And not really understanding fully the connection all the way to the dairy cow. Talk to us a little bit about how a cherry gets from a tree in this three county area to a plate in a variety of ways.

Korson: Yeah, it's an interesting story Jeff and to a larger extent, Michigan State University has played a key role in the evolution of the cherry industry. In the 40s and 50s, all of the cherries that we grew were hand harvested. In the late 50s and 60s, we knew that over time we had to find a more efficient way to grow cherries. Along came the idea of mechanical harvesting and putting in place a way that we can reduce labor costs and machine harvest the fruit that we grow, but think about that for a second. You have thousands of workers who are coming into the state. Cherries are very perishable in so many different ways, and to be able to grab hold of a limb and shake it, have that fruit fall onto a tarp and handle it and move it to a processing facility, it really meant that we had to completely change the production system.

In the early days, we would grow trees with branches that were low so we could hand harvest them. When we went to machine harvesting, we wanted to prune those trees up so we could grab those limbs easily and minimize the amount of brushiness in the tree so we minimize bruising, but we were dropping them, in some cases 20 feet from the top of that tree to the bottom of the tree, onto a tarp and into a lug originally. But then we moved into mechanically harvesting in water and that revolutionized our industry. But we also had to figure out, okay how do we weigh that fruit and pay the grower? So then came volumetric measurements, so that we can use a probe to measure the inches of cherries in a tank and use a conversion factor, 47.25 to calculate how much to pay the farmer. All of that came through Michigan State University and the technology and the needs both on the horticultural side and on the engineering in those days to develop that piece of technology so that industry could do what it does today.

It's an amazing industry because it takes about 3 seconds to harvest a tree. Then on to the next tree and so it's very quick. We elevate everything into a tank of water. Then it's quickly moved in that tank of water, from the shaker to the truck, from the truck to the farm, where it's cooled for a few hours then put on a truck and then moved to a processing facility. In Michigan today, we are known for our processing capacities here in the state. If you go to the west coast and look at California or Washington state, they're known for their fresh market capabilities, but in Michigan, we're known as a processing state and we are really good at it.

Dwyer: So what are some of the newer products that cherry growers have been working on together with you and your folks that The Cherry Marketing Institute and also those of us at Michigan State University?

Korson: Some of the exciting areas that we're working on right now, the cherry industry doesn't have an Ocean Spray. So we don't have that large company that has a major brand that can promote the fruit that our farmers grow. That can be a blessing and it can be a curse. In many ways the brands are great. They bring to the table a wealth of money a lot of times to promote the brand. But if you don't have that major brand, what's the next best thing that you can do? That's really innovation. Innovation is key to the cherry industry and it's something that I'm really proud of. When you look at our farmers and our processors in the state, we're small in size but we've really set ourselves apart in terms of innovation.

For those of you who have been to northern Michigan, you can drive from shop to shop. Cherry Republic is a great example of a company that innovates so many different product and incorporates cherries into everything that they sell. In fact, I'm not sure that  you can buy anything at Cherry Republic that doesn't have cherry in it. They're one example but there's a lot of other examples. Frisky Orchards as you go north, big farm market, they manufacture a lot of items, cherries incorporated in everything that they sell or a lot of the things that they sell. But innovation is a key part of it. For us in our industry, finding those new things but probably the biggest invention that came online was dried cherries. Don Nugent, a former MSU board of trustee member, was the innovator behind that discovery. He worked for years with a small dryer, then to a larger dryer, then to bell driers. From there a number of other companies have entered the dried cherry arena and dried cherries went form a very small item to about 140 million pounds a year that are dried. It's a fantastic product that can be used in blends and trail mixes and consumed straight. Michigan salads, for those of you who are here in Michigan, they always have dried cherries on those salads.

Dwyer: That's right and it's wonderful.

Korson: Yeah, they're wonderful. So that's one and the item that's really gaining a lot of momentum right now is cherry juice concentrate. We originally started selling it retail in port jars and have now moved it down to 16 ounce containers. But the real change will be in single strength juice that's easy, convenient, and portable and we're excited to see that all happen.

Dwyer: Well it's an amazing group of talented growers who have built just a terrific industry and supported by you and a lot of others. And we're certainly glad at Michigan State University Extension and AgBioResearch research and all of Michigan State University to have had the pleasure to be a part of that over the last several decades. But I think one of the things that we try and point out on this podcast is, that agriculture, being a farmer or in this case a grower, it's not always sunny days with rainbows and clocking out at five o'clock. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges the cherry growers are facing today?

Korson: Oh absolutely. I think across agriculture, we're no different than a lot of other commodity groups today, both here in Michigan and across the U.S. It's tough on the farm today. We're competing with low cost products coming in primarily from Turkey. The market for cherry juice concentrate has really exploded. To a large extent we built the market. Our growers set aside money for marketing and promotion and invested a huge amount of money in that market. And as that market was growing, we saw imports increase. Up until 10 years ago, 12 years ago, we really didn't see a lot of imports coming into the company. Today we see a lot of imports coming in in the form of cherry juice concentrate. We've started to see dried cherry imports coming in and they're in a fairly steady growth curve up as well. Frozen imports have been steady, but there's no question we're in a global market.

We just won a case last year, last week in front of the international trade commission against Turkey. Section 503 of the trade act gave turkey duty free access into the U.S. market. So we pushed back pretty hard last year in December, petitioned the president and the International Trade Commission, to deny Turkey duty free access into our market and President Trump put back in place a duty on tart cherry juice concentrate coming in from Turkey. So that doesn't solve all of our problems, but the import issue is a big issue for us.

The other issue that keeps our growers awake at night is SWD. The north west station and fruit team at Michigan State University have led the charge in trying to put in place, mechanisms and science and technology to help us combat SWD. Spotted Wing Drosophila or SWD is probably one of the biggest challenges on the farm that producers face today. Spotted Wing Drosophila came to the U.S. about six years ago and it made its way to Michigan about three years ago. Spotted Wing Drosophila that we call SWD to a large extent is a very small fruit fly, but it has ovipositor that can saw into the fruit and lay eggs. And those eggs mature and the life cycle of SWD is very short. So depending on the weather and how warm it is, they can multiply very quickly. So the bottom line is that if you have a SWD problem and you don't control it, you're going to have worms in fruit and most consumers don't care for that.

We've learned a lot. It's not gone away, but our environment here in Michigan is different than other environments all across the country. The things that we need to do or the tools that we need to give our farmers need to come from the researchers here at Michigan State University and from Michigan, where we're looking at the terrain here and the insect here and how it's evolved.

Dwyer: Well and the challenges is, the growers are facing spotted wing drosophila being a great recent example. I think it highlights that this is a real partnership. You've been kind enough to talk about how Michigan State has worked closely with growers and helped in many ways, but we can't be in a position to do what we do without growers who acknowledge, appreciate and give access to their farms and their groves so that we can do that work and so that we can do that work together. It makes me think Phil, you and I attended a few weeks ago, the 20 year anniversary of Project GREEEN. And you and Fred Poston and others were there at the very beginning, but you've been such a strong supporter over time. As I said that evening, I had the privilege of being the MC that night. It's really such a great example of how an industry and in this case agriculture and many in vegetable growing and fruit and all of that have worked closely with the university. Can you talk a little bit about that program and what a partnership like that means to the entire state of Michigan.

Korson: Jeff that really makes me smile and makes me feel good because 22 years ago when we started thinking about Project GREEEN, there was just a small core of us who sat around the table and we were on the heels of the livestock initiative and just passed that or were on the cusp of passing that. We had worked for a couple years to try to build on what we thought might work better. The Livestock Initiative was unique in that it was really geared towards buildings. And we really on the plant side wanted to do something that would stay relative and current. Fred Poston was probably one of the most wonderful people I have met along the way as dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the time and it was because he was willing to think outside of the box in how we approach things. Where in the Livestock Initiative, the language was really boiled down to a boiler plate and pretty ridged in what you could do with the funding, we wanted to go the opposite way.

So I tell people all the time that Project GREEEN was built on trust. It's really amazing to me that we could fast forward 20 years now and look backwards and feel it's as relative today as it was the day we built it. And it's relative because we're able to change as parties change. It was a key part that was built into Project GREEEN and it really created the true partnership between the university, state government and stakeholders. It really challenged folks to come to the table with some of their money, leverage it with state dollars and address key priorities. Issues like SWD, we don't have enough money in our industry to fund that alone. We've got to find ways that we can take the money we have, leverage it with other dollars and create a pool of dollars that then we can invest in research and extension that will deliver to farmers real time information quickly so that they can make decisions in the field and control pests that they've never had to control before.

So SWD is the issue today, it's going be something else tomorrow. It's going to be a new disease later. And because of the way we designed that, Project GREEEN was as relative 10 years ago as it is now because we can change those priorities as those needs change. I use to always say, I'd like to think we were really smart. I think we're really lucky in a lot of ways. But at the end of the day when we peel back all the layers of it, it's because we all trusted each other and we were willing to join hands at that point in time, convince the legislature that it was the right thing to do. And it was sustainable over some really tough funding times because folks at the capital realized that this is an investment that we want to keep and protect.

Dwyer: Well it really is a remarkable story and thank you so much for your role in not only making it happen, but in supporting it in a variety of ways throughout the years. Just to close the loop on Spotted Wing Drosophila, I think to reinforce what you're saying about the ability to respond to the problems that are before us. I happen to know be a part of five or six people who do some sort of immediate review of problems. Doug Buhler was talking about this just last week. My recollection is that when the first email went out a few months ago for a relatively small but significant amount of money to support Nikki Rothwell and her team to do some work that needed to be done now. It literally needed to be done now, and our recollection was it was less than 90 minutes, that over a lunch hour that we just were checking our email and we all immediately said, "Yes, we have to do this." And we were off and running and I think Nikki had the approval by the end of the day. So that does make it a remarkable program.

So, another aspect I'd like to just ask you about, because again you've been a leader not just in Michigan but nationally in this regard. But, cherry growers, the food industry, they're just not expecting people to do things for them. They're right in the middle of it. Check off program I think are so important and they've made possible positions that you helped fund in extension.

Korson: Right.

Dwyer: And many, many other things. Could you tell people what a check off program is?

Korson: Sure.

Dwyer: And that it's really a decision that the growers are making before they even know what their crop is going to be like.

Korson: Check off programs are really great tools. In Michigan we call them, PA232 programs. Public Act 232 was established in about 1965. The Michigan Cherry Committee organized under Public Act 232 or what we call PA232 in 1967. So we've been operational under a check off program for a long, long time. So the two things that we do, primary things that we do with our program, is fund research and extension. So we carve off a part of those dollars every year to fund research and extension activities and again use those dollars to leverage Project GREEEN dollars and any other source of revenue that we can. The other piece that we use those dollars for is to generate innovation and work on promotion platforms. Today Michigan farmers combine their dollars with all the other U.S. producers across the country and pool their dollars to really target frozen cherries, dried cherries and juice cherries. So our opportunity was to really create markets for tart cherry juice, expand the markets for dry cherries and frozen cherries.

To a large extent we grow a huge amount of cherries that are frozen. It's the first step in the process. So we bring them in out of the field, we pit them, we freeze them. From there we can move them into dried cherries or sell them as frozen IQF cherries or manufacture any other item that you can think of as it relates to a bakery ingredient. We also have a canning industry that's very traditional, that is focused on cherry pies, cherry pie filling. That's still a really popular consumer item. We've never given up on the bakery side of it. We want to stay committed to the bakery side and those producers who manufacture or sell to a manufacturer that makes cherry pie filling, but at the same time we really want to think about what future consumers are going to be consuming and target those consumers. And to a large extent, dried and juice fits in that whole area of muscle recover and the different things that tart cherries are good for. In fact, our first health benefits research that we did was here at Michigan State University and form there we've funded research all across the US.

We fund about six a year and this year we've got four that are running in the U.K. So our industry in particular is really committed to research and extension, both the science side and the delivery side. Our growers support extension in this state. They support research because they know, if we don't develop the science here, we won't have it to combat an invasive pest that may come in. We're a small enough industry that big companies aren't going to invest in Spotted Wing Drosophila control for us. If we don't do it ourselves we're not going to have the tools that we need and our industry will go away over time. So Michigan State plays a key role in that. We are joined at the hip on the research side. We understand the value of it. One of the easiest things for me to sell at the grower level is the research and extension piece of it because promotion is important and they support promotion as well. The thing that really resonates with our farmers is that research piece because they know how critical it is for their future.

Dwyer: It's really a remarkable industry and having the chance to meet a lot of growers it's really a fantastic group of people. And so we appreciate so much your role not just in the industry, but really in providing leadership throughout the state and the United States in terms of agriculture and how we think about these things and how we compete.

This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Phil Korson. Thank you very much for being here today Phil.

Korson: You’re welcome. Thank you Jeff.