Seventy percent of the United States’ supply of cherries comes from Michigan. Valued at $280.1 million and consisting of more than 100 million pounds of cherries, many of these treats are enjoyed by locals come August’s end.
“Michigan is the cherry capital of the United States,” said Leisa Eckerle Hankins, whose family runs a fifth-generation farm that produces nearly 1.5 million pounds of cherries every year out of their orchards in Suttons Bay. “This year, northwest Michigan is expected to produce 55 million pounds of tart cherries. West-central is looking at 30 million, and southwest Michigan is looking at 23 million.”
Getting those cherries out into the world takes a lot of work, and no one knows that more than local farmers. Ahead of the National Cherry Festival, we talked to several local farmers to see what it’s like for them.
Meet the farmers
Growing cherries requires precise conditions that Northern Michigan provides. Elevated ground is ideal for planting cherry trees because it reduces the likelihood of frost. The soil also needs to drain well. For instance, land composed of clay would not work because the trees will get “wet feet” resulting in root rot. Once the ground is chosen, farmers lay out the orchard.
Established in 2006, Hallstedt Homestead Orchard located in Northport made the Hallstedt’s first-generation farmers with a focus on fresh produce.
At Hallstedt Homestead, the design is a high-density pedestrian orchard. Typically trees are planted in 16-foot rows, 6 feet apart from one another.
“We are a you-pick orchard. We have nine going on 15 varieties of cherries, as well as raspberries and flowers,” Phil Hallstedt said.
Eckerle Hankins grew up on the fifth-generation cherry farm in Leelanau County. The 257 acre farm is home to about 25,000 fruit trees. Eckerle Hankins also is the owner of Benjamin Twiggs, a specialty cherry store located in downtown Traverse City.
The products sold at the store are made from cherries grown on her family’s farm.
‘Cherries are born to die’
Keeping a cherry tree healthy requires year-round maintenance.
“It is true sweet cherries love to die. They take constant care,” Hallstedt said.
During the winter, the greatest threat to a cherry tree is mice. They can kill the tree by eating the bark all the way around the bottom of the trunk. In the spring, every tree requires pruning, which has to be done by hand. The trees are also fertilized. After pruning, the trees are sprayed to deter insects. The sprays also deter fungus and bacterial infections. In late spring, the cherries go through what’s called shuck split, which is when a developing fruit bursts through the shuck. A shuck is the outer layer of a pod or husk. The shuck split is the final stage of the blossoming process.
“When get through the season and usually about 60 to 70 days from bloom, we do a final spray. Then we basically rebuild all the equipment and take the rest, and it starts again,” Hallstedt said.
Many Michigan cherry farms are you-pick models, meaning customers are invited onto the orchard to pick their own cherries. Hallstedt explained some Michigan farmers find difficulty competing with states like California for exports of cherries. With high labor costs and the dilemma of hiring seasonal workers, the model is doesn’t work for them. Instead the Homestead focuses on inviting the community into their operation and teaching them the value of native produce.
“What’s different about us we have a lot of education, so we train our summer interns to join us in May. They see the entire season, then they help us to lead our customers and answer their questions,” Hallstedt said.
At the Eckerle Hankins farm, harvesting 1.5 million pounds of cherries would be near impossible to do by hand.
“We don’t do any hand-picking - ours is all done with a mechanical shaker. My cousin and my son and usually somebody else are out in the orchard, and they shake the trees. Our shaking usually takes 30-35 days to get through all of our orchards,” Eckerle Hankins said.
The Eckerle Hankins farm also runs a receiving station, which is a place to weigh and grade the cherries before they are processed.
“The growers out in the Leelanau County bring their cherries to us on a truck. They come into the station, and we unload them. My husband and my daughter weigh them and grade them. Then a couple hours later, they get on a semi and they leave our station. They go down to a processor, where they will get pitted, and they get ready for whatever process they’re going into,” Eckerle Hankins said.
The cherries grown at the Eckerle Hankins farm are returned to Traverse City for processing at Food for Thought. The cherries are made into salsa, jam, barbeque sauce, butter, honey mustard, dressing, syrup, vinegar and more. Those products are later sold at Benjamin Twiggs.
At the Hallstedt Homestead, they have a small store with inventory from farm produce, too.
The local impact of cherry produce
At this time of year, the Eckerle Hankins family lives and breathes cherries. With many years of tradition being passed between them, providing food to the community is in their blood. Eckerle Hankins is in the process of establishing a farmer sustainability fund to support local farmers.
“We all know we all have to have food on our table, and that can’t happen without farmers. I think that we need the small farmer because sometimes we get into with large-scale farming, there is a lot of processing. By keeping things smaller, we keep things a little more healthy,” Eckerle Hankins said.
“We have beautiful countryside here in Leelanau and Grand Traverse, and to see farms being sold and not being farmed, I think is sad, and so anything we can do to help continue to keep farming alive is important to us. I’m so excited that my son has decided he wants to farm and be a part of keeping that tradition going,” Eckerle Hankins said.
At the Hallstedt Homestead, community is at the very center of what they do.
“We have three values that we try to live by. One is the land; we try to educate people about the land and how how valuable this land is. The second thing is access; a lot of the public just doesn’t have access to farms anymore for a number of regulatory reasons and liability issues. The third one is joy. We find joy not only being on the land but also helping others find a little bit of joy when they come visit,” Hallstedt said.
“I love fresh fruit that is ripe and local. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how anyone could top a really good cherry,” Hallstedt said.