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Cherry industry leaders expect a lighter than normal harvest across the nation this year, and Utah's tart cherry growers could have a windfall if the weather befriends their crop between now and harvest time.

Michigan, which produces 75 percent of the nation's tart or pie cherries, has had a much lighter than normal year, according to Edward W. Muir, chairman of Muir-Roberts Co. Inc., Salt Lake City, one of Utah's largest cherry processors.

He said stress from too heavy a crop last year, winter frost damage and the drought have combined to reduce what farmers in Michigan had hoped would be a 250 million-pound crop down to only 150 million pounds. Most other states have had a light crop of tart cherries, too, Muir said. Agriculture experts say Americans consume 200 to 225 million pounds of pie cherries annually and they expect a harvest this year of 200 to 210 million pounds, possibly less.

Muir said Utah, the second largest producer of tart cherries in the nation, had 25 million pounds of the fruit on trees last year. A disastrous hail storm ripped through the heart of Utah's orchard land _ Utah County _ at harvest time, wiping out many cherry orchards, and the state harvested only 15 million pounds. Prices were so low that many orchards, that had abundant cherries, left them on the trees.

This year, even though Utah's cherry harvest has been forecast as light _ about 10 to 12 million pounds _ growers could get 15 to 17 cents per pound for their tart cherries.

Most cherry growers who hand pick their crops say they need 10 cents a pound to make money and growers who use mechanized pickers say they need at least 5 or 6 cents a pound to break even.

At 15 cents a pound or higher, most of Utah's tart cherry growers would definitely make a profit this year.

Muir says he is optimistic, but, he cautions, "anything can happen. You never know what profits will be until the cherries are in the can."

"If we don't get harsh winds, too much heat or a hail storm, things could be good."

One more factor in the profit equation, he said, is the 60 million pounds of cherries believed by industry leaders, as of July 1, to have been carried over from last year. "There are few tart cherries left in Utah. But, nationally, this carryover will have to be reckoned with."

The stored cherries are a deterrent, he said, to letting the price of cherries go through the roof.

The carryover, he said, is somewhat of a mystery. "Nobody knows if all these cherries have been sold or whether they are in the hands of the government. And nobody knows the quality of the carryover.

"If there are a lot fewer stored cherries than we think there are and if they are of poor quality and ...a lot more ifs, then Utah cherry growers could see even more profits."