Sept. 05--TRAVERSE CITY -- A program that offers crop insurance to cherry growers in two northern Michigan counties is expanding throughout the region in light of this year's disastrous cherry harvest.
And a movement is afoot to make crop insurance available to all cherry growers in Michigan by 2014.
A federal pilot program previously offered crop insurance to sweet cherry growers only in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. Last week, the program was expanded to five more northern counties -- Antrim, Benzie, Manistee, Mason and Oceana, said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
"It's very important for our cherry growers going forward," said Stabenow, who chairs the U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee and lobbied for expansion of the program.
Tart cherry growers remain without any crop insurance coverage options. Stabenow said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a "fast track" to make crop insurance programs available to all cherry farmers, sweet and tart, by 2014.
"It's big news," said Jim Bardenhagen, a Leelanau County fruit and vegetable grower who grows about 30 acres of cherries. "There's a lot of stress out there right now for growers."
Northern Michigan cherry growers are suffering through one of the worst crop harvests on record due to an unusually warm March followed by frosts that destroyed cherry blossoms. The USDA reports the tart cherry crop in 2012 was almost a complete loss, and losses of sweet cherries were estimated at 80 percent or higher.
"We harvested about 1 percent of the crop," said Suttons Bay cherry grower Don Gregory.
Gregory said he was encouraged by the movement to make crop insurance available to all cherry farmers. He said it's long overdue and gives fruit growers a risk management tool common among other farmers who grow wheat, corn and other traditional crops.
"We have not been able to provide ourselves with any kind of safety net," Gregory said. "It really becomes important working with lenders. You need to provide them with assurance that they are going to get some type of payment even in a year where you don't have a crop. It will improve the financing of growing cherries in northern Michigan."
Phil Korson of the Cherry Marketing Institute agrees. He said crop insurance for fruit growers protects the long-term interests of farming in northern Michigan -- particularly helping younger farmers manage risk.
"It's very important for the region and the people who live there," Korson said. "We can't control the weather and our producers didn't do anything wrong this year. We had a very unusual warm-up that set us up for a crop disaster."
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