TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – A disaster is unfolding in Michigan orchards as erratic spring weather causes some of the biggest losses in decades of cherries, apples and other fruits, growers said Thursday.

A rare extended period of summerlike temperatures in March caused trees to blossom early, only to be zapped by an unrelenting series of April frosts and freezes. The one-two punch killed many buds, while recent cold snaps and rainstorms have discouraged honeybees from pollinating those that survived.

Farmers and agricultural extension agents said the tart cherry crop is all but wiped out in most places, while sweet cherries, apples, pears and other fruits are heavily damaged. Juice grapes are another casualty. Many growers probably won’t bother harvesting their meager yields, focusing instead on keeping trees healthy for next year, said Ken Nye, commodity specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“This is the worst that Michigan has experienced in the past 50 years at least,” Nye said. “I don’t know how far you’d have to go back to find something similar.”

Michigan produces three-fourths of the nation’s tart cherries, used primarily in pies and other food products, and 20 percent of its sweet cherries, a popular table fruit. It ranks third nationally in apple production, behind Washington and New York.

The state is no stranger to spring cold snaps, and experts say orchards remain vulnerable throughout May. The tart cherry crop was a near-total loss a decade ago. What sets this year apart is not just the severity of the damage but the variety of fruits affected.

“We’ve had freezes before, but you’d always have something come through OK,” said David Rabe, who grows apples, tart cherries, peaches and asparagus in Oceana County. “This year, just about everything’s devastated. Asparagus might be the only crop we can harvest.”

Pat McGuire, who grows fruits and vegetables on his 850-acre farm in Antrim County, said he’s given up on tart cherries but is finding some live peach and apple buds.

“If we can get them pollinated, we’ll still have fruit,” he said. “But we’re not going to have a bumper crop by any means.”

Daytime high temperatures reached the 70s and 80s for nearly two weeks in mid-March, a time when much of the state is typically covered with snow. It tricked fruit trees into emerging from dormancy far too soon. In the northwestern Lower Peninsula, the first tart cherry blossoms were spotted April 9 – more than a month earlier than usual.

Since late March, temperatures have fallen below freezing more than a dozen times. With each dip, more flower buds were killed, said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County. The full extent of the losses won’t be known for weeks but they’ll be heavy, she said.

It comes as the cherry industry has boosted demand by marketing the fruit as a health food rich in antioxidants.

“It’s disappointing when we can’t produce a crop to meet that new, exciting consumer demand,” said Ben LaCross, a second-generation grower in Leelanau County.

Smaller yields likely will result in shortages, higher prices and fewer jobs for farm laborers, said Mark Longstroth, a Michigan State University small fruit educator.

There’s usually a surplus of cherries from previous seasons in cold storage, but inventories are low because the past couple of year’s crops have been down, LaCross said.

Bob Sutherland, president of the Glen Arbor fruit products company Cherry Republic, usually has plenty of local cherries for his jams, jellies and other treats. This year, he’s ordered 150,000 pounds from Poland.

“It’s a temporary necessity to keep our plants running and our employees working,” Sutherland said.

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