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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Freshly picked tart cherries from McMullin Orchard in Payson gets a water rinse before sorting and packaging in their processing facility. Tart cherry production in Utah is similar to last year's harvest, but because of a devastating freeze in Michigan, normally the nation's largest producing state, Utah will be No. 1 this year.
Utah’s tart cherry harvest props up poor U.S. crop
Food » One of nation’s top producers will be counted on heavily this year.
First Published Jul 11 2012 12:31 pm • Last Updated Oct 30 2012 11:32 pm

The state’s tart cherry harvest is expected to be good, which is timely because with the rest of the nation’s crop devastated by a spring freeze, nearly half of the U.S. harvest will come from Utah growers.

The U.S. tart cherry crop is forecast at 73 million pounds‚ down a whopping 68 percent from last year’s harvest. At the same time, the forecast for Utah is 34 million pounds, only 1 million pounds less than last year’s all-time bumper crop.

At a glance

Utah cherry harvest

Sweet » 1968 was banner year, at 7,700 tons; 1972 was the worst, at zero tons

Tart » 2011 was best year, at 35 million pounds; 1972 was the worst, at 1.3 million pounds

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Top cherry producers

Tart » Normally, Michigan is No. 1, followed by Utah, Washington, New York and Wisconsin.

Sweet » Typically, Washington is at the top, followed by California, Oregon, Michigan, Montana and Utah.

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"It’s too bad in the farming business that someone else’s misfortune is our good fortune," said Robert McMullin, owner of McMullin Orchards in Payson. "We are looking at a very good crop."

The harvest began earlier this week.

Utah typically is rated No. 2 in tart cherry production and No. 6 in its sweet cherry harvest. This year, sweet cherry production in the state is rebounding from a devastating frost in 2011 and is forecast to weigh in at 1,600 tons, or double from last year’s crop.

Nationally, the tart cherry harvest is dismal, with freezing temperatures earlier this year damaging fruits in the big producing states of New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Michigan, normally the largest producing state, was hit the hardest as record high temperatures in early spring led to premature development of trees, followed by frosts. The majority of growers lost all of their crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The tart cherry harvest in Michigan is forecast at 5.5 million pounds, down from 157.5 million pounds last year.

Conversely, production is up in Washington state, normally in the No. 3 spot, at 27 million pounds.

Whether consumers will be impacted is not yet known, but Utah growers are expecting better returns for themselves this year.

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"I’m already selling cherries that were held over from other harvests," McMullin said of tart cherries that were frozen and stored.

Utah’s harvest was so large last year that many farmers left millions of pounds of fruit to rot in fields to prevent the harvest from flooding the market and depressing prices. The crop’s size made it impossible to store the entire harvest.

Tart cherries, also called sour or pie cherries, are best known as ingredients in desserts and beverages. Nearly all tart cherries are frozen, canned or dried.

Much of Utah’s crop is dried and used in trail mixes and other snacks. McMullin said there’s also a local market for tart cherries from bakeries and home cooks hankering for cobbler or pies.

Typically, sweet cherries are sold and eaten fresh.

Nationally, sweet cherry production is forecast at more than 382,000 tons, up 11 percent from last year.

The forecast for Utah is 1,600 tons, double from last year’s meager harvest. The state’s sweet cherry harvest had steadily declined since 2009, when production topped out at 1,540 tons, followed by the 2010 harvest of 1,100 tons.

"We’re having a good sweet cherry crop this year," said Thayne Tagge, of Tagge’s Famous Fruit, based in Perry. "The harvest also started early, about the 20th of June instead of around the fourth of July. We’re halfway through the harvest, and it’s the best we’ve had in a long time."

Washington state is forecast to again come in at the No. 1 spot in sweet cherry production, with a crop estimated at 235,000 tons, up by 35,000 tons from last year. California, the second-best producing state, is expected to harvest 85,000 tons and Oregon’s crop is estimated at 53,000 tons.

Freezing temperatures damaged sweet cherries in Michigan and New York.

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