My Secret Michigan: Cherry Harvest. Leelanau County.

As any loyal reader of Martha Stewart Living would know, in July, Ms. Stewart profiled the great state of Michigan in a short photo essay entitled “Secret Michigan”.  In this lovely article, Martha managed to give away only a few secrets of Michigan, including the fabulous farm stands in Northport, the great table at the home of elusive front man for The Chet Offensive (a rock band….you can follow him on Instagram) and some love for the Chubby Mary at Rick’s in Leland.  Still, despite this lovely photo story, I don’t think Martha got all the secret spots—in fact I know she didn’t.  And for that I’m very glad.

As any loyal reader of this blog (or anyone who spoken to me even remotely at any point) will know—I love Michigan.  I LOVE this state….like probably more than most people out there love their dogs.  I truly believe Michigan is one of the best places, if not best place ever.  Sure, I am particularly loyal to the Western/Northwestern region but I can muster some love for the east side as well.  Zingerman’s, the Eastern Market in Detroit, the Avalon Bakery, all of those are some pretty rad food spots to be sure.  Now that we are moving back to Michigan (in 4 days officially!), I wanted to start a little serious on this blog that I am calling “My Own Secret Michigan”.  I will profile small aspects of the state that I think are pretty rad. 

The first offering for this is something that for anyone who lives in Northport, or around Northport, will know is not secret at all—the Mitchell’s cherry business at Cherry Home Orchards.

Kelly and Brian Mitchell have lived n Northport full-time for the past 10 years.  In Northport they are raising 3 children, Gannon, Grace and Gunner, 2 dogs and a whole slew of cherries.  I have known Kelly and Brian for years, but I wasn’t aware until I spent the day with them, how seriously awesome this cherry growing thing is that they’ve been doing.  Kelly has joked that “she is a farmer” for awhile now and I always sort of thought she was sitting in an office, maybe making some phone calls about cherries or something, but after I spent the day watching and documenting the harvest, I realized that she is…actually a farmer. And so is Brian.  And they’re kind of a big deal up in Northport. As in if they chose to leave the area, the entire economy would sort of collapse—they’re a big deal up here….yet they haven’t let it go to their heads.  Kelly and I talked a lot about how they find their seasonal labor and the guys they have working the crew.  She talked about how much they try to find local kids from the area to work the harvest.  The crew works for 35 days straight, long hours and they only are finished when the cherries are finished.  Kelly said that they try to have repeat crews year after year, but obviously due to life changes, sometimes one is only able to work one or two harvests.

Owning over 1200 acres of cherries, Kelly and Brian stay super busy for these 35 days.  Depending on the winter and spring, the harvest usually starts around the 3rd week of July, and typically lasts about 35 days.  Some years are different though, as Kelly explained, with 2012 only yielding a 2 week harvest.  Kelly and Brian grow both sweets and tarts and I was able to visit on one of the last days they were shaking sweets.

Shaking.  This is so cool.  A cherry shaker is a huge piece of equipment—and Kelly told me that if the shaker ever shook a person…well that would be the end of the person.  The shaker pulls up to a tree and grabs the trunk.  Then the crew member shakes the tree for about 30-45 seconds and most of the cherries fall onto a lovely trampoline type conveyor, which then runs the cherries into a huge cherry tub.  The tubs are brought back to the front of the orchard and then moved on. Kelly explained that they shake sweets first and then tarts due to the differences in their growing season.  When the tubs come back to the warehouse, all are checked carefully to ensure there isn’t excessive bruising or injury to the fruit—if any tubs are found to be spoiled, they are dumped and not delivered.  Kelly explained that part of harvesting is just understanding that a tub might have to be dumped now and then, but she had hardly had any such tubs for this harvest, which was excellent news.

I asked Kelly how long cherry trees typically produce fruit and she said it could vary.  The Mitchells have some trees that are 30-40 years old, while they have others that are just babies and starting off.  She said that older trees can be shaken a bit harder, whereas the younger ones, much like children, should not be shaken, but rather hand picked.  When an orchard is done, they bulldoze the trees and burn them, then plant rye grass to help hold the soil and prevent erosion.  Eventually the orchard will be replanted. 

There is so much more I can say about the harvest—I literally asked Kelly about 300 questions.  I just found it so interested—for 35 days a year, these folks work their tails off—morning til night—just so that we can all have cherries in the winter.  Kelly and Brian’s cherry industry reaches nationwide as they not only produce maraschinos for cocktails, but also GoGo Squeeze and frozen cherries for pies and tarts.  Many of the cherries you will purchase in the Michigan or Midwest region were grown in one of Cherry Home’s many orchards and Kelly and Brian had a hand in ensuring this was some of the best fruit this region produces.  Overall it was an excellent way to spend a summer afternoon.  Thanks so much to Kelly and Brian for allowing me and my cameras into your little part of Secret Michigan.