The cherry is a symbol of perfection and happiness as it sits on top an ice cream sundae. Traverse City, Michigan, also known as ‘The Cherry Capital’, plays a large role in getting that cherry ‘on top’. Along the western shore of Lake Michigan, from Benton Harbor to Traverse City, approximately 3.8 million trees produce millions of pounds of tart cherries. A great many cherry orchards can be found on Old Mission Peninsula. I take great joy in watching these orchards year around as I travel from here to there.
The cherry was a favorite of our prehistoric ancestors. Originating in the Caucasus Mountains, an area in Eurasia between the Caspian and Black Seas, cherries traveled to Rome in 74 B.C. They found their way to Greece, China, Britain, and traveled the Atlantic in the 1600s to be planted in what would become the United States.
The cherry is considered a stone fruit meaning it has one pit, seed or stone. There are both sweet and tart cherries. This luscious fruit comes in many shades of red, purple sometimes called black, and a pale yellow, a Rainier cherry. It has been discovered that cherries contain anti-inflammatory properties helping quiet joint pain in addition to having the antioxidants, kaempferol and quercetin. Antioxidants in general boost the immune system and slow aging. These particular chemicals help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and improve memory and concentration.
Michigan growers produce 75% of the tart cherries in the United States. In 1998, a very good year, 228.5 million pounds were harvested. Most of Michigan’s tart cherries are Montmorency cherries named for an area outside of Paris where they were developed. These cherries are sent to food processors to make pies, preserves, jellies, juice, yogurts, and dried fruit. It is the Montmorency cherries I want to discuss.
In 1852 the first cherry trees were planted on Old Mission Peninsula by the Reverend Peter Dougherty. To everyone’s surprise the trees thrived. Cherries soon became a cash crop. In 1878 cherry trees were planted in the Island View Orchards. Ancestors of the original planters, Mary and Whitney Lyons still own and operate this orchard today. By 1893 the first commercial cherry orchard was planted on what is known as the Ridgewood Farm. Cherries have been grown in this area for a very long time and as we all know practice makes perfect.
Cherry trees can be difficult to grow as they are prone to root rot, pest infestation, are poor pollinators and a favorite meal for birds. The trees need six hours of direct sun which is indeed part of the Michigan spring and summer. They love the well drained sandy soil making up the peninsula. Lake Michigan provides the temperate weather conditions enjoyed by the cherries. Pesticides ( I dislike seeing that machine traveling the roads and puffing through the orchards) help the trees stay parasite free. As discussed in an earlier blog, bees are moved in each spring to enhance pollination.
It takes seven years for a cherry tree to fully mature. At this time it will be about fourteen to eighteen feet tall with a twenty foot spread. Some trees are pruned to enhance the crop and make picking easier (sweet cherries are still picked by hand). At the age of three or four years the tree will produce its first crop of cherries. In the orchards the trees are planted in rows ten feet apart, as they need good air circulation, with sixteen foot spaces between the rows for farm machinery use. Each tree will produce about 7,000 cherries which will make about twenty-eight pies.
Let’s take a seasonal look at the orchards.
The cherry tree enters a dormant stage as the winter temperatures come into play. This protects the tree from budding too early. To produce a successful crop a cherry tree needs seven-hundred hours of temperatures below forty-five degrees. Several years ago, in mid -March, we had a week of seventy degree weather which lead to the blossoms emerging and then being frozen. The harvest was miserable that year. Cherries were imported from Poland to create the lovely cherry products Michigan is known for. The next year there was a bumper crop as the trees had retained energy not used the year before.
In April as temperatures warm the sap begins to flow. First the buds begin to swell. Soon after the blossoms grace the trees for a week or two depending on the temperatures. The cooler the temperature the longer we see blossoms. Seasonal rain and hail storms can cause the blossoms to fall apart which may result in a damaged fruit crop. A late frost can be deadly. The trees are spectacular. Below is the view from the playground of the school in which I substitute teach. Love playground duty in the spring.
Now we wait 60 days.
This is when the real work begins. Tart cherry trees are tougher than sweet cherry trees and are harvested using shakers. Once the shakers have removed the cherries they are put in lugs or tanks of water. The water keeps the fruit from bruising. The lugs are loaded on trucks and taken to the fruit exchange. From there they may be put on rail cars or remain on trucks and taken to the processing companies. This must be done rapidly as the fruit is quick to perish and must be canned or frozen as soon as possible. As I drive the peninsula roads at this time of year I see splashes of watery cherries, usually on or near a corner. The birds flock to these cherry spills enjoying an unexpected treat.
Below is a short video of a harvesting machine. They look like a Leonardo DiVinci invention.
Fall is a time of rest for the trees. Leaves collect the sun nourishing the trees for next summers work. Soon these leaves will turn orange and fall to the ground quickly. Farmers sell cherry products at roadside stands that line the peninsula. I do my favorite shopping at these stands: fruit, vegetables and eggs.
In May of 1910 Traverse City begin a tradition of ‘Blessing Of The Blossoms’. In 1926 the National Cherry Festival replaced this ceremony. During the first week in July the cherry is King in Traverse City.
For ninety years people from all over the world have traveled to enjoy the Cherry Festival….check out the map with location pins. The festival has also seen its fair share of United States Presidents. President Hoover attended Opening Day Ceremonies in 1929. President Ford was the Grand Marshall of the 1975 parade. In 1926 the Hawkins Bakery baked Calvin Coolidge a cherry pie three feet in diameter holding 5,000 cherries. During World War II however, the Cherry Festival was suspended beginning once again in 1948.
Visitors come to enjoy the Blue Angels or Thunder Birds, numerous bands – rock and otherwise, parades, an Ultimate Air Dog Competition, foot races for adults and children, pie eating contests, cherry pit spitting contests, pets shows, a midway and much more. Being a foody town the local restaurants and stores have about anything cherry you can think of. There are cherry salads, cherry brats and hamburgers, pork with cherry sauce, chicken covered with cherries, pies, cookies, candy, and of course fresh cherries by the cup full, just to name a few. In 1987 a world record was set in Traverse City for baking the worlds largest cherry pie weighing 28,350 pounds. The pie pan is on still on display just outside of town. Cherry clothing includes sweatshirts, sweaters, aprons, dresses and more. It really is quite a week.
This winter as you are feasting on cherry pie, enjoying a cherry yogurt or any other marvelous cherry product think of Traverse City, MI and its cherry farmers devoted to this amazing fruit.