GTPulse: Checking in With Local Cherry Farmer Ben LaCross
Written by guest columnist Christal Frost
Sometime around 1910, growers in the Grand Traverse area began to hold informal “blessing of the blossoms” ceremonies every year to pray for a good cherry crop. The annual blossom prayers evolved into what we now know as The National Cherry Festival, but the foundation of farming and celebrating cherries continues to be the focus of the festival.
I sat down with Ben LaCross from Leelanau Fruit Company and LaCross Farms to talk cherries, the pandemic and about what the absence of the festival means for local farmers.
Christal: Farmers are always resilient–having to deal with weather, politics, and more–what did the pandemic mean for farming in Michigan?
LaCross: The pandemic made all humans realize that no matter how technologically advanced our society gets, we are all still at the whim of a few tiny bacteria and viruses. But no matter what, people still need to eat, cherry trees will still bloom in May, and the world will keep rotating around the sun.
So during the pandemic, farmers did what farmers do- we planted trees and seed, we milked cows, and we produced food for everyone else. I’m so proud of the American farmer throughout all this. In 2020, most every American crop is produced with minimal profit (or even a loss) back to the farmer. But we persevered. And we fed people, and we will continue to do so.
LaCross: Oh, boy. How long do we have?!?
Cliffs Notes: First, in March, we lost our snow too soon. Then in April, it wouldn’t warm up. May was cold and brought freezing temps right as our buds were beginning to grow, except for the days where it was 90 degrees, which was too hot for pollination.
After all those ups and downs, June should be normal, right? O.K., June was normal if you like kayaking down Munson Avenue between an Elmer’s Truck and someone with an Illinois license plate. Next to someone in a stand up paddle board.
Here’s an understatement- June was wet. They were smelt dipping in the Grand Traverse Commons. Successfully. Let’s put all those weather ups and downs behind us and fall into a consistent pattern, O.K.? O.K., if you like record heat and a lack of rainfall that would make Noah jealous.
What does all this mean for the cherry crop? Farmers have been dealing with crazy weather patterns for millennia, so we will adapt. We could have used a little less freezing temps and scorching hot temps in May (Michigan weather, amiright?).
All in all, we have a smaller than average cherry crop in 2020, but it has strengthened grower prices, which we needed. Farmers are praying for good quality fruit, a healthy workforce, and a strong harvest season in July and August.
Christal: How is the cherry crop coming this year? And, when can we expect local cherries?
LaCross: The cherry crop in Northern Michigan is growing well on the trees and in farmer’s orchards throughout Northern Michigan. The tart cherry crop (think: dried cherries, cherry pie, ice cream) is a little smaller than normal, but should be extra ripe and delicious. Our sweet cherries (think: maraschino cherries, ice cream cherries, and fresh sweets) are growing a very nice, abundant crop of tree-candy.
With the heat we’ve been experiencing lately, we should have some ripe local sweets by July 10.gt
Christal: What is the relationship between cherry farmers and the cherry festival, and what does the absence of the festival mean for farmer?
LaCross: The festival has been a great partner for the industry. Every year, my hometown throws a huge party to celebrate the fruit that me and my fellow farmers grow. How cool is that? The absence of the festival means significantly less national media exposure for our fruit than in normal years. The National Cherry Festival brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists to our area to celebrate the world’s greatest fruit year in and year out, and it also brings in media from throughout the country, too. For a small industry like the cherry industry, we need all the free publicity we can get.
Christal: How can we support local farmers?
LaCross: Eat lots of cherries. Do you remember the film Forrest Gump? Remember Bubba, Forrest’s buddy from the Vietnam War? Bubba was encyclopedic about his use of shrimp in different dishes. Become the Bubba of cherries. Cherry juice. Cherry pie. Vinaigrette salad with dried cherries. Cherries in your cocktail. Cherries in your oatmeal. Cherries in chili. Seriously, we need every Northern Michigan local to become influencers for the cherry industry. Tell a friend. Phone a friend. Facebook, Insta, Twitter. Do it all.
Ben’s Tart Cherry Pie Recipe:
Plump and juicy cherries are one of summer’s favorite fruits. There’s no better way to take advantage of the bounty than to bake up a homemade cherry pie! We’d love to have you stop by our Suttons Bay office and meet our resident recipe expert, Misha. While you are there, make sure you pick up plenty of frozen tart cherries to make your pies with!
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon Almond extract
- Dash salt
- 4 cups fresh or frozen pitted tart cherries, thawed and drained
- Pastry for double crust 9” pie (recipe to follow)
- 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 egg yolk, sugar to sprinkle over the top crust
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt; stir in cherries and extract until blended. Let stand for 30 minutes. Bring to a boil over medium heat; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat.
Line a 9 inch pie plate with bottom crust. Fill with cherry filling; dot with butter. Top with remaining top crust. (you may wish to cut out some pretty cherry shapes and leaves before placing the crust on top of the cherry filling). Trim, seal and flute edges. Cut a few slits in the top crust for steam to escape while baking. Wisk egg yolk and brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 45 minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Cover edges during the last 20 minutes to prevent over-browning. Cool on wire rack.
PERFECT PIE CRUST (for a 9”, two crust pie)
- 2 ½ all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ¾ cup cold butter, cut into chunks
- ¼ cup cold lard or shortening
- ¼ cup cold water
Mix flour, salt & sugar in large mixing bowl or food processor. Add butter & lard and cut into the flour mixture using pastry cutter or pulsing food processor. The mixture should look like large crumbs and begin to cling together. Do not overmix. Sprinkle water over the dough and with hands mix until dough holds together. Shape into 2 discs. Wrap with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until ready to use.