cranberries From red tart cherries to Easter lilies to maple syrup, Michigan is one of the most diverse growing states in the nation. Second only to California in variety, Michigan’s selection of specialty crops plays a significant role in the $101.2 billion value of the state’s food and agriculture industry. A few more specialty crops found in the Great Lakes State include: apples, asparagus, celery, blueberries, dry edible beans, chestnuts, grapes, pumpkins and squash, strawberries and cranberries.

Michigan Cranberries

Sharon Huggett and her husband, Wally, have been growing cranberries in Cheboygan for more than 20 years. The couple formed Michigan Cranberry Company in 1991 and planted the first beds in 1993, with a respectable harvest in 1998. Currently, they have about 220 acres of cranberries on a total of 800 acres. “My husband’s family has been in agriculture for over 100 years,” Sharon Huggett says. “His father and grandfather started in dairy, then began growing peppermint and spearmint. There was a problem with the mint in the mid- 1950s, so my father-in-law started looking at other crops and began growing sod in 1958.” Huggett says they bought the farm from Wally’s father in 1963 and took over growing sod and mint, but in 1985, Wally began investigating cranberries after his interest was peaked by a friend.

pumpkins “We purchased a piece of property in Cheboygan County and planted the first cranberries in 1993,” she says. Huggett says cranberries are a unique specialty crop because they are flooded for harvest and also in the wintertime to protect them from harsh weather by forming a layer of ice, causing a process almost like the greenhouse effect. “Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water,” Huggett says. “They’re only flooded for harvest and winter protection.” The Huggetts sell their berries wholesale, with 15 of their 45 beds going to Ocean Spray. They also sell fresh berries to grocery stores including Meijer, Kroger, Wal-Mart and Aldi. cucumbers

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Innovative Research

Along with cranberries, other important specialty crops for Michigan include members of the cucurbit family, such as cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins. To protect these crops, Michigan State University is leading a $6.5 million research effort to develop genetic tools to help breed disease-resistant crops, thanks to a grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Rebecca Grumet, MSU horticulture professor, leads the team of researchers, consisting of 21 scientists from seven institutions across the country. “With respect to Michigan, the primary cucurbit crop is cucumber, and the two diseases receiving primary effort are downy mildew and Phytophthora fruit rot,” Grumet says. She adds that disease is the most serious production challenge facing cucurbit farmers, and researchers hope to help develop an economical and environmental solution. “The project also includes an extension component that will develop a centralized source of information for cucurbit crop diseases, including diagnosis, control recommendations and helping farmers to manage diseases while breeding efforts are underway,” Grumet says. Research efforts such as this are poised to keep Michigan’s already thriving specialty crop market strong.  

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