From pie filling to super fruit: Michigan tart cherries are the next “big thing”

Cherry timeResearch is confirming what cherry growing families and communities have known for decades: tart cherries are really, really good for you. Once marketed primarily as a pie ingredient, tart cherries are gaining credibility as a super fruit, capable of helping with arthritis, gout, sleep, and more.

“We grew cherries as a baking ingredient, but we always had this folklore about the health benefits,” said Phil Korson, President of the Dewitt-based Cherry Marketing Institute.

As fewer people actually baked pies, Korson said the industry started investing in research that would help create a different type of market for tart cherries based on their health benefits. The rising demand for nutraceutical products – supplements, pastes, concentrates, and juices – shows the strategy has worked.

To stay competitive on a global scale, ongoing agricultural research is also important to help growers produce better crops. Rows of tart cherry trees dot a picturesque 100 acres at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County. It looks like a typical orchard, but these trees are working hard for cherry growers throughout the country.

Established in 1979, the Michigan State University Extension-operated center is the nation’s premier tart cherry research site, tackling integrated pest management, horticultural production and handling, and processing techniques. Knowledge gained here helps tart cherry farmers everywhere.

“As we look to the future, what are the key things those farmers are going to need to be successful? A lot of that comes from production-side research,” Korson said.

Jim Nugent is a cherry grower who operates Sun Blossom Orchards in Suttons Bay and used to be the center’s coordinator. He said with over 50 percent of the state’s tart cherry crop coming from the Grand Traverse region, the research center’s location is ideal. In fact, local growers in the 1970s raised money to buy the land and sold it for $1 to MSU, to operate.

Nugent stresses how vital the research done at the center is, in staying competitive with other cherry-growing countries.

“We compete in a global market – that’s the reality,” Nugent said.

The work that goes into researching production methods, health benefits research and the marketing of new claims, is on full display at the industry’s annual celebration, the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City.

David Barr, 2014 Festival President, said the festival is not only an important social event for the local community, but a wonderful way to get the word out about the region’s premier crop to a wider audience. As an example, celebrity chef Mario Batali spent some time at this year’s festival to record segments for ABC’s “The Chew”.

“Locally, cherries are our major industry. A lot of people have deep connections to cherries,” Barr said. “For the community, it’s a gigantic celebration of a tree fruit we see every day. It’s a marketable part of our economy and it’s exciting to see interest from all over the U.S.”

Photo credit: digital vincent

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