For years, Old Orchard Brands in Sparta has relied on Michigan tart cherry juice concentrate for making its Very Cherre juice drink.
Things have been different this year in Michigan — normally, the leading state in tart cherry production. The late April frosts killed most of the fruit crop that had bloomed prematurely from Wisconsin all the way east to upstate New York.
Describing it as a “cataclysmic weather event,” Mark Saur of Old Orchard said his company is sourcing tart cherry juice concentrate from Europe “as most people are, to fill that void.”
Saur, who founded the company more than 25 years ago as an offshoot from the Saur family farm, said this isn’t the first time Old Orchard has had to import cherry juice concentrate from Poland and Turkey. However, “on a year like this year, you’re basically using a hundred percent” of imported juice concentrate.
“This year was a total wipeout,” he said. “Up until a year ago, we bought probably 75 percent of our cherry needs here. For this crop year, we will buy 100 percent of our needs outside.” And that means overseas.
According to research by the Canadian Cherry Producers Inc. in Saskatchewan, most of the world’s sour cherries are grown in Russia, Poland, the Ukraine and Turkey. Within the U.S., Michigan produces the most sour cherries, but the entire U.S. crop is less than 10 percent of world production.
Saur does not reveal Old Orchard’s annual sales revenue but he said the company is within the top 10 beverage companies. The Old Orchard website states it is the second largest frozen and fourth largest bottled juice company in the United States.
“We pack 100 different types of juices, so there’s really no one item that is the lion’s share,” Saur said of Old Orchard’s production capabilities.
Old Orchard’s popularity is reflected in its Facebook presence, which exceeded 100,000 “likes” by fans in April. Part of that social media marketing strategy included celebrating the 100,000 “likes” with the donation of a truckload of juice to the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank for distribution to food pantries in the state. Some Facebook users who “liked” Old Orchard also won coupons redeemable for a 64-ounce bottle of Old Orchard juice.
Even last year, said Saur, Old Orchard was importing tart cherry juice concentrate. How does one go about finding cherry concentrate brokers in other parts of the world?
“There’s just a handful of people in the world and so you know who they all are. It’s a small world today,” he said.
Old Orchard uses the Safe Quality Food Level Three Standard in its importing processes. He said it is a voluntary industry standard.
Old Orchard also has been buying “pretty much 100 percent” of the grape juice concentrate it needs from Michigan and upstate New York. However, like tart cherries, “concord grapes are a disaster” this year, according to Saur.
That is not the case with wine grapes, however, which suffered a 5 to 10 percent reduction in the crop due to the April freeze. According to several published reports, wine grapes remain dormant longer than juice grapes and cherries, and most were not yet in bloom when the severe frost struck. Then, of course, Michigan suffered a major drought in June and July that further hurt crops, but wine grapes actually do better in dry conditions than juice grapes.
When asked if Old Orchard’s business was hurting this year due to the weather, Saur said, “All costs are up and you are trying to maintain a business.” However, the steps Old Orchard is taking are cautious because “you don’t want to turn off all your consumers.”