After an almost total crop loss last year, Wisconsin — one of the nation's largest tart cherry growers — is expected to produce more than 8 million pounds of cherries this year. Overall, U.S. production is expected to spike nearly a third to 283.6 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tart cherries — also called sour, red or pie cherries — are best known as ingredients in desserts and beverages. The increase in this year's crop is unlikely to significantly affect consumer prices because nearly all tart cherries are frozen, canned or dried and the supply is regulated.
Still, a good harvest could be a boon to farmers, some of whom had to write off last year after an unexpected warm spell was followed by a sudden freeze that devastated the state's harvest.
"We're looking good. When you go from nothing to having a good crop, what can you say?" said Dan Krowas, owner of Krowas Orchard in Door County, home of Wisconsin's cherry industry.
His trees produced only 5 percent of a normal crop last year. This year, the harvest should be average or better, he said.
"Oh sure, I am happy," he said. "We had our recession last year."
Tom Sayer, who owns Cherry Lane Orchards in Door County, said his 12 acres of trees had the most "brilliant blossoms."
Now he's just praying for rain after two dry weeks and a large turnout when he opens his orchard for visitors to pick their own cherries. He's charging $8 for a 9-pound pail, $1 dollar more than two years ago when he last had cherries to offer.
"It is still under a dollar a pound, which is a good deal," he said.
Most of the nation's tart cherries are grown in Wisconsin and six other states: industry leader Michigan, Utah, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon.
Michigan expects to harvest 220 million pounds, 33 percent more than last year and 12 percent more than 2007.
The projected production in Utah — 23 million pounds — would be up 3 million pounds. Cherry trees in Washington are forecast to produce 17.5 million pounds — 5 million pounds more than a year ago.
In New York, USDA projects growers will raise 8.4 million pounds — down more than 1 million pounds from a 2008.
Perry Hedin, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board in DeWitt, Mich., said a larger crop this season was not unexpected in an industry noted for having large variations in annual production.
To ensure a steady supply in the market, processors stockpile cherries in years of surplus production and release them in off years, Hedin said. As of Wednesday, the industry had space to store up to 25 million pounds of tart cherries to keep them from flooding the market, he said.
In Michigan, this year's production is up partly because more cherry trees have been planted in the past five years and last year's crop was small, said Clinton Brian, a co-owner of High Oaks Farms, which has about 40 acres of cherries near Frankfort, Mich.
"Usually after the trees take a break from the action, they can really bounce back the next year," he said.
The only downside of this year's "really nice" crop will be if the volume is more than processors can handle and the price they pay to growers drops, Brian said.
Last year, the country's 650 farmers who grow tart cherries for processing received an average 39.1 cents per pound, Hedin said.
"That is an excellent return at grower level," he said. "Unfortunately, it is not a predictor of what is going to happen this year."
Mark Evans, who also has a fruit farm in Frankfort, said he's also worried about the price he will get for his 130 acres of cherries if all the growers have an excellent year.
"What we always hope for is you have a decent crop yourself and someone else gets wiped out," he joked.