New uses for cherry pits makes landfilling a “waste of a waste”

Image: Karen Blix (Flickr)

By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service

Michigan’s cherry industry may have a way to make money from, of all things, the pits.

And to make soil more productive.

And to reduce toxic metals, such as lead and arsenic, in contaminated water.

Converting waste cherry pits for useful purposes could lower costs for processors and reduce the industry’s environmental impact by avoiding the need to dump the pits into landfills, according to a new study by Cornell University researchers.

There’s a growing realization that “disposing of homogeneous waste like this is a waste of a waste. Landfilling it seems kind of stupid in this day and age,” said study coauthor Jillian Goldfarb, a professor in Cornell’s Biological & Environmental Engineering Department.

Both environmentally and economically, “landfilling is not worth it when you have alternatives,” Goldfarb said.

In most years, Michigan accounts for about three-quarters of U.S. production of tart, or Montmorency, cherries.

In 2019, the state produced 164 million pounds of tart cherries out of a national total of 262 million, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute, based in DeWitt.

But production plummeted in 2020, down to 142 million pounds nationally, with only 68.4 million pounds of that from Michigan.

Why the dramatic drop? A “frost event” in mid-May 2020, institute President Julie Gordon said.

And heavy rains at the wrong time in northern Michigan, said Scott Pryde, the president of Great Lakes Packing Co. In a normal year, the company’s plant in Kewadin processes about 10 million pounds of cherries, a number that plummeted to about 1 million pounds last year.

“It was very painful,” he said.

Pits account for about 5% of the cherry crop’s weight, Pryde said.

Tart cherries are used primarily for cooking, baking, syrups, juice rather than for eating fresh.

It’s a big business in Michigan, mostly in the Northern Lower Peninsula and West Michigan. Oceana County has the most acres of orchards, followed by Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Antrim-Charlevoix, Mason, Van Buren, Allegan and Benzie counties, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute.

The other top-producing states are Utah (54 million pounds), Washington (24.6 million) and Wisconsin (9.1 million), according to Statista.com.

Using pits from the Kewadin plant, Cornell researchers experimented with how to convert them to biochar, a charcoal-like, carbon-rich substance made by heating pits in a zero- or low-oxygen environment. Biochar is usually plowed or dug into farm fields and gardens to enrich the soil.

“The U.S. tart cherry industry faces wide-ranging challenges, including increased competition from overseas imports, uncertainties associated with impacts due to climate change and mounting organic landfill waste contributing to the methane footprint of agriculture,” the study in the journal Environmental Pollution reported.

The study said one solution to those problems is converting waste pits to biochar.

That process generally takes 45 minutes to an hour in a pyrolysis kiln. Pyrolysis is a process that changes the chemistry of material exposed to high temperature without burning the material.

And with additional processing biochar can be used to act like a sponge that takes heavy metals out of drinking water, among other uses, the study said.

Pryde said Great Lakes Packing’s Kewadin plant dries its pits with a grain dryer, stores them in silos and then sells them in 40-pound and 1,000-pound packages, primarily as biofuel.

Purchasers burn them in pellet stoves.

Doing that is “slightly negative” economically, he said, especially the handling and packaging of the 40-pound lots.

The company’s other plant in Hart gives away its pits without charge to be spread on orchards and allowed to break down naturally, Pryde said. They break down extraordinarily slowly.”

Meanwhile, a separate new study by Rice University researchers found that mixing biochar into sandy-textured soil in areas such as the Northern Lower Peninsula can significantly increase the soil’s ability to retain water, allowing farmers to use less water for irrigation. Other parts of the U.S. that would benefit include much of Nebraska and Florida, according to the analysis published in the journal GCB-Bioenergy.

Researchers have explored other possible ways to add value to tart cherry pits, including extracting oils to use in cooking and cosmetics and extracting bio-oil as a renewable fuel.

The goal of such projects is to develop revenue from otherwise-discarded waste, improve plants’ use of nutrients, reduce drinking water pollution and minimize the environmental effects of food production, the Cornell study said.

Asian carp on our plates—not in our water

By Kathleen Fitch

Chef Soohwa Yu has been serving Asian carp at the University of Illinois since 2017. According to Yu, four out of six dining halls at the university serve the invasive fish.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was offered at least once a week. Now, due to limited dining options, Asian Carp is served once every two weeks.

Yu said pre-pandemic he served Asian carp as a full, bone-in fish.

“A lot of our students had never seen a whole fish before,” he said.

Ted Penesis, the director of the Office of Community Outreach for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said Asian carp is more popular to eat in Asian countries, and often eaten with the bones in.

Eating Asian carp is a strategy designed to lower their population and prevent them from invading the Great Lakes.

Carp sliders are a popular form of Asian carp served at University of Illinois dining halls. Image: University of Illinois

According to Penesis, eating Asian carp is healthy, tasty and environmentally friendly.

“If there’s a way we could educate the students here in America on how to eat that, I think that’s something that we definitely want to do,” Penesis said.

Yu said, “Lots of students have given positive feedback.”

According to Yu, the Asian carp served at the University of Illinois comes from the Illinois River in Peoria. The river is a gateway into Lake Michigan.

Unlike common carp, Asian carp are “very healthy fish because they’re top-level water feeders,” Penesis said. “They’re low in mercury content, high in iron and high in omega-3 fatty acid.”

Because it’s mild-tasting, he described it as a “blank slate” for chefs to create something that tastes however they want. He said the DNR has been telling chefs to “use your creativity. Whatever recipe you’ve got, try it out.”

“The response has been fantastic,” Penesis said. Out of the thousands of people who have tried it, he’s heard only two negative comments and they came from people who didn’t like fish.

He said Asian carp is mostly being served as a minced product.

“On the fish itself you have these small bones. It’s very labor-intensive to get those small bones out to serve filets, so we’re serving it as a minced or ground product, and it gets rid of all the bones.

“The great thing about serving a minced product is it’s very versatile,” Penesis said. “You can form it into sausages, you can form it into patties. You can use it for tacos, for chili, for fish cakes.”

To increase the market for Asian carp, Penesis said “you kind of need that perfect storm” that requires catching the fish, processing them and creating demand. “We’ve got the supply, so now we’re just working on getting that demand.”

“The emphasis right now is making sure the buyers of the product are aware that Asian carp are a quality fish,” Penesis said. “We need to make sure there’s enough fishers out there to harvest it.”

Through the DNR’s Enhanced Contract Fishing Program, anglers in Peoria will receive a 10-cent incentive for every pound they sell.

“We’re not just looking at the public institutions, we’re looking at the restaurant industry. Right now the restaurant industry is really struggling. We have an opportunity to provide them with an inexpensive product that could save them money.

“I think we’ve got a very bright future,” Penesis said. “There are a lot of people who are interested in serving this already.”

Featured Image: Full bone-in Asian carp served before the pandemic. Image: University of Illinois

Climate change threatens maple syrup production

By Anne Hooper

Winter is coming. It’s the season for baking dense fruit cakes, crisp gingerbread cookies and fluffy homemade pancakes to douse with syrup.

For fans of the third dish, however, there could be trouble ahead: As climate change intensifies, some scientists fear for the future of the North American maple syrup industry.

Canada tops the list of 60 nations that produce and export syrup—accounting for 82.5% of global production during 2019, according to World’s Top Exports.

According to Ray Bonenberg, the treasurer and chair of communications for the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association, maple cultivators on both sides of the border are impacted by climate change.

“We’re seeing a lot of climatic extremes with temperatures reaching new highs and lows, droughts intensifying and weather patterns becoming more erratic. It’s a stressor to both the trees and ourselves,” he said.

The Canadian government says the vast majority of its syrup comes from Quebec, which produces more than 90% of the country’s supply.Ontario is the second-largest provincial producer.

Following Canada, the United States is the world’s second-largest producer. Vermont produces the most, followed by New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

According to World’s Top Exports, the 2019 syrup revenue for Canada equates to a whopping $324 million in USD—which exceeds America’s revenue tenfold.

Between 2015 and 2019, the industry’s revenue grew by 13.8% globally, World’s Top Exports reported.

Despite recent economic growth, experts have raised concerns about the industry going forward. In the face of climate change, producers may face several challenges.

Sugar maple sap must be harvested during a small interval in the springtime, when conditions are perfect, according to the Marketplace Morning Report,

Due to rising global temperatures, however, the general health of the trees could be jeopardized—threatening both their sap-producing and reproductive cycles.

Within the last half-century, experts have quantified changes in the so-called “maple sugaring season.” Normally, this season falls between February and April.

In addition, there are now fewer freezing-and-thawing cycles to encourage the flow of sap. As the number of cycles decreases, so does the amount of sap produced, the center reported.

Maples also rely on snow to accumulate around their roots, protecting them from freezing in the wintertime. With annual snowfall expected to decrease, however, their root health may be compromised.

Along with rising global temperatures, the National Climate Assessment reported a rise in the number of extreme weather events such as heat waves, tornadoes, severe hurricanes and other storms.

As the frequency of severe weather events has increased, their intensity has also grown. Since 2000, multiple disasters have individually cost the United States several billion dollars in damages, the National Climate Assessment said.

According to Bonenburg, who has produced syrup in Ontario for nearly 50 years, these climatic shifts have created new challenges for producers.

“The drastic temperature changes result in atypical freezing-and-thawing cycles, which makes sap irregularly. From just one day to the next, it’s impossible to predict whether my sap storage tanks will be bone-dry or overflowing,” he said.

Another difficulty, Bonenburg said, is adapting to a sugaring season that begins slightly earlier each year.

“During most of my career, tree-trapping started in late March and went through April. Recently, though, lots of producers have moved their tapping into February or January,” Bonenburg said.

Ontario producers aren’t alone in this experience.

According to the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, the average sugaring season in Vermont now begins 8.3 days earlier and ends 11.6 days earlier than 50 years ago. The center’s Timothy Perkins said, “We’ve looked at the timing of tapping historically, and there’s been a significant shift in the average start and end dates of production.

“The season continues to shift earlier in the calendar year and, for a while, there was a reduction in the length of the season,” he said.

According to Dartmouth College, by 2100, the North American sugaring season is expected to begin an entire month earlier than it had over the previous half-century.

During this time, the college reports, maple syrup production is expected to decline throughout the northeastern United States and into southern Canada.

Perkins said, “We’ve developed methods that have proven successful in offsetting the losses of a truncated sugaring season. Mainly, these are sanitation practices which are implemented to keep the tap-hole and sap-collecting equipment clean.”

According to Perkins, these novel sanitation processes help keep tap-holes in the trees healthier, which allows sap to flow longer. Combined with earlier tapping, such methods can increase the syrup yield.

“Thus far, our work has managed to offset the impacts of climate change in shortening the duration of the season. Looking forward, it’s important that we keep finding ways to mitigate the new challenges in maple sugaring,” Perkins said.

According to Bonenberg of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association, such ingenuity and adaptability will be crucial for producers in the future.

“With ongoing climatic and environmental changes, unpredictability has become the greatest challenge for us in the industry,” he said.

Going forward, he explained, it will be crucial for producers to be alert and proactive in their efforts.

“It’s imperative that we ‘understand, mitigate and adapt’. We need to stay aware of climate change, work toward mitigating its effects and be able to adapt to the changes it’s caused. That’s how this industry is going to survive,” Bonenberg said.

Image: Sap collection 1954. Image: University of Vermont

Cherry growers want to get in on the snacking trend

By Judy Putnam
Capital News Service

Struggling Michigan cherry farmers hope to cash in on a growing consumer trend during the pandemic: We’re eating more snacks.

The DeWitt-based Cherry Marketing Institute will use a $125,000 federal grant to promote the benefits of cherries to manufacturers of snack food and beverages, said Julie Gordon, president.

“With consumers snacking more often, we thought this would be a good opportunity to try to get new product innovations geared to the snacking trend,” Gordon said. She leads the national research and promotion organization that works on behalf of growers in Michigan and three other states.

Gordon’s group looked at an April survey of just over 1,000 adults by the International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food & Health Survey. It reported that 32% said they are snacking more since the start of the pandemic. The annual survey also found that COVID-19 had altered the way we eat: 85% reported changed eating habits with 60% reporting they were eating more at home.

“The consensus of the promotion committee for the industry is to try to focus on manufacturers to get in front of them the story of the tart cherry, the benefits of the tart cherry,” Gordon said.

Protein bars and shakes are one such possibility. The targets are major manufacturers including Kellogg’s, Quaker, Nestle and Smucker’s. Cherries are already used in a variety of snacks from chocolate-covered dried cherries to a cold-brewed sparkling cherry coffee drink. A Traverse City company, Deering’s, even produces cherry beef jerky.

The grant was one of 19 federal grants for specialty crops recently announced by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The federal program offers funding to state departments of agriculture to support the specialty crop industry, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, plants and flowers.

Gordon said U.S. growers are struggling because of cherry imports from Turkey and Poland, where government subsidies drive down the price to consumers.

“It’s very hard to compete. We can’t compete,” Gordon said.

In the past, the cherry institute has used the federal specialty crop grants to promote the Montmorency tart cherry name directly to consumers. It’s a variety grown only in the U.S., Gordon said.

Unfortunately, imports have also begun using the Montmorency name, though Gordon contends it’s not the same cherry or quality as those grown in the U.S.

Michigan, with nearly 300 tart cherry farms, produces 75% of the tart cherry crop in the U.S.

In addition to import woes, Michigan’s crop this year suffered from a late freeze that reduced cherry production by some 60%.

Michael DeRuiter, 38, of Hart, a third-generation cherry grower, said the U.S. cherry industry is in danger. His family farms 800 acres and also processes cherries. He has served on an industry board and is a member of the Michigan Farm Bureau board of directors.

He said imported produce has already overtaken the U.S. cherry juice market over the last decade. Now the U.S. industry is fighting to keep its share of the dried cherry market.

“Turkey owns the juice market here. We cannot let them take over the dried market. It could be the dagger for the industry,” he said.

The spring freeze reduced the cherry crop this year, but higher prices made up for it for some farmers, though others lost their entire crop, DeRuiter said.

He said he has lobbied for policies that will do more to protect U.S. growers.

“All we want to do is survive, feed our family and be able to compete on a level playing field,” he said.

DeRuiter supports the idea of expanding the market for cherries with more snacks.

“I think everything helps. If any processor or group of growers can come up with a new product, it’s all good stuff that helps the U.S. grower out,” he said, adding: “It’s a marquee fruit product for Michigan. I’d hate to see that go away.”

Image: Family members operate a cherry shaker at the Hart-based DeRuiter Farms, Inc. By Michael DeRuiter

What drives farmers to join farmers markets?

By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service

Why do farmers join new farmers markets, especially in poor urban areas where the financial risk is greater than in more affluent communities?

Some rely solely on farm income to support their families. Others are startup farmers seeking new business opportunities.

But for others, the major motivations are their love of gardening or the desire to build community, a new study found. For those farmers, recreational pleasure or a civic mission outweigh economics.

“Farmers markets in low-income, urban areas struggle to establish and sustain themselves,” the study by Michigan State University researchers said. “Accordingly, farmer recruitment and retention remain a challenge.”

Vendors who participated in new low-income, urban markets “to support their livelihoods were the most likely to drop out,” the study said. “Those who farmed for recreation or as social mission were most loyal and did not drop out.”

Overall, farmers markets are booming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports there were 8,771 nationally in 2019, up from 1,755 in 1994.

The Michigan Farmers Market Association lists 225 on its website, and the executive director, Amanda Shreve, says the actual number may be higher.

While COVID-19 delayed this year’s opening of some farmers markets and led others to new sanitation and social distancing practices, the association knows of only four that didn’t open at all this season.

One was the three-times-a-year special farmers market on the lawn of the Capitol in Lansing. Shreve said. Another was in Munising, because its regular location was unavailable, and there wasn’t enough space for social distancing at an alternate location.

The others were the Grow Benzie Farmers Market in Benzonia and the Grayling Farmers Market.

The Michigan Farmers Market Association lists 225 markets on its website.

Meanwhile, one opened this year, the Marlette Farmers Market in the Thumb, Shreve said.

The expanding popularity of farmers markets has increased competition to attract vendors and created challenges for starting new ones, according to the study published in the journal, “Agriculture and Human Values.”

Lead author Dru Montri said she saw a lot of quick growth during the decade she was the state association’s executive director.

And more farmers markets meant greater competition for vendors, including a growing number of startups that opened in poorer urban areas to provide better access to food, said Montri, who is now the director of government and stakeholder relations at MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The study interviewed vendors from 27 farms at six markets, two of them in each of three cities with higher levels of poverty, unemployment and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) recipients than the Michigan average. Those markets were all 5 years old or younger.

The study didn’t name the cities.

Farmers who were interviewed at the young new markets fell into four categories:

  •     Full-timers who rely on agriculture for their primary livelihood.
  •     Seekers of business opportunities, such as new farmers, with other income sources.
  •     Self-identified recreational gardeners who sell their products, generally raised on less than an acre, solely for enjoyment and relaxation.
  •     Those with “civic intentions” to use small-scale urban farming “to accomplish larger social goals,” such as youth development and leadership, providing entrepreneurial experience and community organizing.

The challenge of recruiting and keeping farmer-vendors is one of the most urgent concerns in establishing and sustaining a new farmers market, the study said. And that problem is “more pronounced in low-income urban areas where farmers markets are especially vulnerable to failure.”

Montri, who owns a small farm in Bath with her husband, said the findings can help market managers recruit and can help the association’s trainers focus on building community and networks when looking for types of farmers to recruit.

For example, full-timers who depend on farming for livelihoods, choose markets based on sales potential, meaning income, the study said. Five of the 27 fit that category of farmers whose primary goal is to maximize income.

And 13 of the 27 reported that selling at farmers markets provided them a new business opportunity while relying on off-farm income or savings from prior careers.

Recruiting vendors from the other two groups – recreational gardeners and those who are mission-driven – may prove more successful because they don’t depend on market sales to continue operating, the study said.

“Farmers who are most suited to low-income, urban farmers markets may be currently overlooked by market managers who regularly target full-time livelihood vendors,” it said.