Michigan's Tart Cherry Orchards Struggle To Cope With Climate Change : The Salt An unpredictable spring this year unnerved tart cherry growers in Michigan, because these cherry trees are especially vulnerable to extreme weather shifts made more likely by climate change.
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Michigan's Tart Cherry Orchards Struggle To Cope With Erratic Spring Weather

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Michigan's Tart Cherry Orchards Struggle To Cope With Erratic Spring Weather

Michigan's Tart Cherry Orchards Struggle To Cope With Erratic Spring Weather

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

So far this year, cold weather has frozen blueberries in the south. Rains have drowned lettuce in California. And in Michigan where tart cherries are big business, growers are preparing for a long battle with extreme weather. Peter Payette from Interlochen Public Radio reports.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: Cherry growers in Michigan know one tree really well - the Montmorency tart cherry.

JIM NUGENT: It makes a very nice pie, very nice dried product. It's very cold hardy.

PAYETTE: That's Jim Nugent, a grower in northern Michigan. When he says cold hardy, he means in the winter, not when the buds come out in the spring.

NUGENT: The variety we grow of the Montmorency gets to a very susceptible stage for frost damage quite early in that bud development.

PAYETTE: In 2002 and 2012, freezing temperatures wiped out almost the entire tart cherry crop here. Nugent jokes he couldn't harvest enough cherries to make a pie. Today he's pruning trees with a handsaw. Growers this year were alarmed by a hot spell in February, but the trees are OK. But Jim Nugent hasn't done anything to protect his orchards from the next severe cold snap.

NUGENT: There's not a huge amount we can do in the short run.

PAYETTE: That doesn't mean there's nothing. Todd Springer is trying to deal with another problem related to climate change - poor pollination. He's hanging a homemade beehive made of a white bucket and brown cardboard straws.

TODD SPRINGER: Angling the box down just a little bit so that if it does rain, the water doesn't collect in the box.

PAYETTE: Inside the straws are a different kind of bee called hornfaced. Springer says he's breeding them because the honeybees that usually pollinate his fruit don't like the erratic spring weather either.

SPRINGER: If it's blowing and if it's rainy and cold, honeybees stay in the hive.

PAYETTE: Springer says he's doing this to make sure his family can keep farming land they've been on since 1868.

SPRINGER: If we don't grow cherries, we don't get to keep our farm.

PAYETTE: Todd Springer says talking about climate change is tough for cherry growers because everyone has so much at stake. He was at a conference once with a speaker talking about warming temperatures when a grower got angry and yelled.

SPRINGER: And claimed that this information was just presented to cost us more money as farmers.

PAYETTE: Last month, Springer signed up for an all-day workshop on climate, but it was canceled due to lack of interest. He says it's ironic that one of the talks was about whether the public cares about the problems climate change might cause farmers.

SPRINGER: And we couldn't get more than 11 farmers to come to the meeting to care about it (laughter). And so it's a - I don't know what that says, but like I said, it's hard to talk about. It's hard to listen to.

PAYETTE: The public does care, at least in Michigan. Julie Winkler is a geology professor at Michigan State University who was supposed to share some of her research at the conference. She found people want the government to help farmers adapt to climate change, especially when asked about the problem during record hot weather.

JULIE WINKLER: It was up to 80 percent, but it fell then back to about 70 percent after the warm spell. So it actually was quite strong.

PAYETTE: If there were money to help cherry farmers adapt, it's not clear yet how it would best be spent. There are experiments with sprinklers to cool trees and keep them dormant a little longer in the spring. Jim Nugent thinks what's really needed is a new breed of tart cherry that's more frost-tolerant.

NUGENT: I'm not sure 50 years from now if Montmorency is still going to be a viable variety.

PAYETTE: Researchers are trying to breed trees that bloom later, but introducing a new breed to the market can take decades. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette in Traverse City, Mich.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we misidentify Julie Winkler as a geology professor. In fact, she is a professor of geography.]

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