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A Sweet Promise of Success

Organic tart cherries offer a new, profitable market

October 8, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
T.J. Keyes, manager of Triple D Orchards, Inc. processing plant near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan’s Leelanau County, thought something was terribly wrong when the plant’s first batch of organic tart cherries went down the conveyor belt in late July. The cherries, harvested at the peak of ripeness, were sticking to the belt instead of bouncing around on it like conventional cherries, which farmers harvest by using a chemical spray to make the cherries release from their stems — fully ripe or not.

Frankfort cherry farmers Cheryl and Alan Kobernik were standing next to the production line when this happened, smiling proudly at the stickiness of their first certified organic crop. Seeing T.J.’s concern, Alan quickly explained to him that it was the natural sugars in the fully ripened organic cherries that make them stick.

T.J.’s response? “Cool!”

A naturally sweet tart cherry is a good problem to have when you’re trying to break into the organic juice, jam, and dessert markets, Cheryl said. T.J. agrees. As a processor, he’s interested in helping pioneer new markets that can improve the slim profits of cherry growers, including the owners of the Triple D plant, which are also the nation’s two largest cherry producers.

“We want to be on the cutting edge,” he said.

Better Prices

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Cheryl Kobernik inspects her orchard’s first certified crop of organic cherries.
That’s certainly where organic cherries are now. The 30,000 pounds that the Koberniks grew this year — less than half their normal yield because of weather problems — are just drops in the bucket compared to northwest Michigan’s 2003 total of 85 million pounds — also down by more than 50 percent. But along with cherries from a handful of other certified organic growers in the region, it’s the beginning of a potentially large and farmland-saving market.

This year the Koberniks will pay themselves 65 cents a pound for top-grade, raw cherries that they market themselves — 20 cents more than processors are offering conventional growers. The Koberniks will also earn additional profit by selling directly to companies that make cherry products, which pay at least 50 percent more for organic cherries.

“I believe there’s huge potential in organic cherries,” said Phil Korson, director of the Lansing-based Cherry Marketing Institute. Anything that has tart cherries in it now, from yogurt-covered to dried cherry products, has a completely untapped organic segment, he said. “Michigan will dominate those markets when they develop because of our sheer production capacity.”

Northwest Michigan has the most to gain. The region produces 70 percent of the nation’s tart cherries. Farm spending on everything from tools to toys keeps local commerce healthy. The small-town quality of life and beautiful scenery that the cherry farms support are also vital to the area, especially its tourism and recreation industries.

Help Wanted

MLUI/Gary Howe
  The Triple D processing plant agreed to an unusual deal to help develop new organic markets.
To reach the full economic potential of organic cherries in the region, however, local and state policy makers must recognize and fan the entrepreneurial flame that keeps the region’s organic cherry producers going despite a steep learning curve on organic pest controls and other new challenges. These pioneers are largely on their own when it comes to testing nontoxic production practices and getting their cherries to new markets.

University researchers and economic developers must work with growers and processors to overcome such business hurdles, said Bill Palladino, regional director of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center. “We want to be proactive in promoting some of these value-added agricultural businesses.”

In its own way, that’s what the Triple D plant is doing for the Koberniks, who say they are most grateful for the firm’s unusual flexibility with them. Standard practice in cherry processing is for a plant to take complete ownership of what farmers deliver and pay them a raw product price. Processors then earn more money selling the cherries to cherry product makers. Triple D, however, lets the Koberniks retain ownership of their organic cherries so they not only make more money but also develop the specialty marketing expertise they need to maximize profits.

The return to Triple D?
MLUI/Gary Howe
  Currently, organic cherry farmers get little help when testing non-toxic production practices or new marketing techniques.
“All this is data,” T.J. said. “If the numbers work out, this could be new business for me. There’s a lot of demand for dried organic cherries with no added sugar, for example, but we can’t supply it yet.” That could change if the Koberniks and others can produce sufficient volume and quality without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that conventional farmers need.

Tim Brian, raw products manager for Smeltzer Orchard Company’s processing plant in nearby Benzonia, agrees. “A lot of people are scared to take that first step forward,” he said. “But if you have somebody like the Koberniks, who can basically learn how to do the process, others will probably follow.”

In the meantime, the Koberniks will keep lighting the way with a bright, even fierce, entrepreneurial spirit. It’s the gleam that kept shining in their eyes when their forklift broke down this year in the middle of a thunderstorm as they were loading their last cherries. It’s the laughter of friends and family who lightened the load by helping out with the harvest. And it’s the joy of putting tons more compost on the orchards for still stronger trees next year. “That’s exciting to me!” Cheryl said.

Patty Cantrell manages the Institute’s new entrepreneurial agriculture program and is producing the Seeds of Prosperity conference November 11 to 13 at Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

PLEASE NOTE: The Kobernik orchard and Triple D processing plant are featured on the Tree-to-Table Tour that kicks off the conference. Other tour highlights include Food for Thought, a private-label, specialty food maker; Big North Specialty Foods, a consortium of local companies; and Cherry Republic, a gourmet cherry products retailer. Register for the full conference at www.mlui.org/sop. To register by mail, or to take the tour only, contact Kellie Ferguson at 231-882-4723 x18 or Ferguson@mlui.org.

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