By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Pucker up, Michiganders. Tart cherries could be the newest state symbol.
The journey to honor the tart cherry began several years ago in Wendy Gravlin’s fourth-grade class at Gallimore Elementary School in Canton.
“Even fourth-graders have a voice,” she told her students before they wrote letters to state officials asking them to make tart cherries the official fruit of Michigan.
While learning about state symbols, the students noticed that Michigan hadn’t designated a fruit, unlike some of its neighbors. Wisconsin selected cranberries, Ohio chose tomatoes and Illinois has the GoldRush apple.
Michigan has a state soil, Kalkaska sand; a flower, apple blossom; a wildflower, dwarf lake iris; a fossil, mastodon; a reptile, painted turtle; and many others.
Rep. Dian Slavens, D-Canton Township, took up the issue and first introduced an unsuccessful tart cherry bill in 2010. She reintroduced it this year.
“There hasn’t been a lot of interest – people might think it’s fluffy,” Slavens said.
But the students at Gallimore are zealous about it, Gravlin said.
“Kids come back from the middle school and ask me, ‘Did that ever pass?’” she said.
Gravlin’s students continue to write persuasive essays on the topic and send them to legislators and the governor every year.
“We’re hoping that one day it will happen,” Gravlin said. “They’re pretty passionate about it.”
Slavens said, “This bill is engaging kids in government. When I see them at the grocery store, they ask about it.”
The kids chose tart cherries because they are mostly produced in Michigan and have medicinal and nutritional value, Gravlin said.
Tart cherries have many health benefits and are considered America’s super fruit, which is “really cool” because most super fruits grow in exotic areas, said Phil Korson, director of the Michigan Cherry Committee in DeWitt. He is also president of the national Cherry Marketing Institute.
Northwest Michigan can produce up to 275 million pounds of tart cherries a year, 75 percent of national production. The cherries are worth about $82.2 million before they go into final products, like juice, Korson said.
He said last year, Michigan produced only 6 million pounds because of an early freeze and later drought, which shook the domestic and world markets. The world depends on Michigan for most of its tart cherries.
“When we get a cough, the whole world gets the flu in a major way,” Korson said.
James Nugent, owner of Sunblossom Orchards in Suttons Bay, said, “It’s been a tough year – there was almost no crop in Michigan. It’s really a devastating situation.” He chairs the state Cherry Committee.
The state has more than 25,000 acres of tart cherries, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The number-one producer is Oceana County, closely followed by Leelenau County. Antrim County comes in third and, although it’s home of the National Cherry Festival, Grand Traverse County is fourth.
“I think it would be awesome – it’s always good for the industry to get recognition,” Nugent said.
Slavens said, “I think it would be great. It’s promoting Michigan and Michigan fruit. I’m sure the folks up in Traverse City would love to see tart cherries as the state fruit too.”
The bill is pending in the House Government Operations Committee.
By JUSTINE McGUIRE