Apr 7, 2007Shipping Cherries by the Millions
It was July 22, deep into the cherry harvest, and the cooling pad at Cherry Bay Orchards was abuzz with activity.
Cooled water poured into tanks, each filled with about 1,000 pounds of cherries. When the cherries were properly cooled, probed, sampled and graded, forklifts lifted the tanks and dumped them into a waiting tractor-trailer. Water was dumped in first, so the cherries wouldn’t get smashed when they fell in. About 40 tanks, or 40,000 pounds of cherries, were dumped into the semitrailer, which then headed for Fennville, Mich., to supply Birds Eye Foods with pie filling. During harvest, pad workers fill an average of 15 trailers each day, said Katie Gregory, the office manager.
Four crews were out in the fields, shaking cherry trees with large, yellow, odd-looking machines. The fallen fruit was shipped to the cooling pad. Most of the cherries would be sent to a processing plant in Hart, Mich., where they would be turned into frozen dessert toppings, said Don Gregory, one of three principal owners of the company, along with his brother, Bob, and Norm Veliquette.
Cherry Bay Orchards is based in Leelanau County in Northwest Michigan, but it also has orchards in the southwest part of the state. With all its properties combined, Cherry Bay manages more than 2,000 acres. Most of the acres, about 1,400, yield tart cherries. Three hundred to 400 acres yield sweet cherries, 350 sustain apple trees and about a dozen grow peaches and plums. With the sweet and tart varieties combined, the company harvests an average of 10 million to 12 million pounds of cherries annually, Don said.
That’s a lot of cherries. There were even more about a decade ago, when Cherry Bay was affiliated with Cherry Ke, an operation in nearby Kewadin run by the Veliquette family. Combined, the two companies were the largest cherry operation in the country before they split in 1995, Don said.
“There weren’t any hard feelings,” he said. “It made good business sense to split operations.”
It became obvious the two companies had different business goals, but they continue to work together in other ways, Don said.
“When you start out with very little, you’re willing to take risks,” Don said. “As you start to accumulate assets, your appetite for risk shrinks significantly.”
Cherry Bay started with little and ended up with a lot. It took more than 30 years.
Don and Bob Gregory grew up on a dairy farm in eastern Michigan. When he left home, Don, now 57, became a teacher and never thought he would go back to farming. Bob, now 56, wanted to farm, but wasn’t interested in milking cows.
In 1970, Bob ended up touring fruit farms in Leelanau County with some college friends. There were opportunities in Northwest Michigan that weren’t available anywhere else at the time, so Bob partnered with the Veliquette family to purchase some farmland. Don joined the business in 1972, the operation’s first processing year.
It was a time of transition in the cherry industry. Mechanization was taking over. The young cherry growers came up with some pretty outlandish ideas, at least for the time, like harvesting 24 hours a day, Don said.
“We knew we had to do that in order to pay for equipment,” he said. “People thought we were crazy. We were viewed as dumb college kids.”
When Cherry Bay and Cherry Ke were combined, all the owners took part in making decisions. Don still believes working together is best, not just for his company, but for the entire fruit industry.
“Our number one objective is to have a healthy industry,” he said. “That doesn’t happen unless people work together.”
Cherry Bay works with other producers and processors through more than one organization, including the Cherry Marketing Institute and Shoreline Fruit, a marketing company. The processing plant in Hart also serves vegetable growers, Don said.
“In agriculture, we’ve got a lot of independent thinkers,” Don said. “It’s tough to sit them down to work out problems. When we do, the results benefit everybody.”
For a few weeks every summer, however, Cherry Bay has time to work on only one thing: harvesting millions of pounds of cherries. It usually begins in late June, when workers and equipment head south to harvest the farms near Hartford. The southern harvest lasts eight to 10 days. After the cherries are sent to the processing plant in Hart, everybody heads north again, Don said.
Harvest in Leelanau County, where most of the cherry trees are planted, lasts four or five weeks. This year, it began July 5 and ended during the first week of August. Crews were in the fields working day and night, with few breaks.
“During the month of July, our outside world disappears,” Don said. “We eat, drink and live cherries and try to get to church on Sunday morning.”
The quality of this year’s cherry crop was pretty good. The only problem was wind whip, which can scar individual fruit. Last year’s cherries were a little soft, said Don’s wife, Ann, who helps run the farm.
In order to keep cherries firm, the company bought a hydrocooler three years ago. The large, expensive piece of technology pumps chilled water into cherry tanks on the cooling pad, keeping them cold, which makes it easier to remove the pits during processing, Don said.
Using normal well water, they could get tank temperatures down to about 47? F. The hydrocooler can lower temperatures to about 36? F, Ann said.
The hydrocooler was an investment of more than $100,000. It was worth it because it keeps cherries colder while using less water, Don said.
“Water issues in agriculture are becoming much greater all the time,” he said. “We use about 400 gallons of water per minute while using the hydrocooler. Without the hydrocooler we would need to double the amount of water, and we still wouldn’t be able to get the cherries cold enough.”
The cooling machine has another advantage: It’s portable.
It rests on a trailer and is transported downstate every year. Well water in southern Michigan is five degree warmer than it is up north, so using the hydrocooler down there is probably more efficient, Don said.
Like all farmers, the Gregorys are subject to the vagaries of weather. There’s been a drought this year, but that’s nothing compared to the disaster of 2002, when extremely warm temperatures in March and April, followed by a frost, destroyed most of the cherry crop, leaving the industry with virtually nothing, Don said.
Apples are harvested in late September and October. They’re not as profitable as cherries, Don said.
“We’re cherry growers trying to grow apples,” he said.
Since the apples are harvested by hand, Cherry Bay hires more employees during apple season than any other time of the year. More than 100 people pick apples in the fall, compared to about 65 during cherry season. There are about a dozen year-round employees, Don said.
Cherry Bay’s long-term future is not yet clear. The company started buying sites in southern Michigan because it is more economical to grow down there, a process that might continue.
“In order to survive in any business, you have to be as efficient as you can,” Don said. “The percentage of the national crop in northern Michigan will diminish over the next 10 years because of development pressure. Very few farms sell as farms anymore.”
Leelanau County is in transition. Residential developments are booming. Farms are being converted to non-ag uses. The people moving in want to enjoy the beauty of the area, but not all of them understand the realities of agriculture, including spraying, harvesting and slow-moving vehicles, Bob Gregory said.
The plans of the next generation are still up in the air, too. Bob and Don each have four kids, but it’s too early to tell if any of them will want to take over the business some day.
“There’s interest, but we’re still getting mixed signals at this point,” Bob said.
Don would like to see the some from the next generation take over, but only if they want to. It’s a big commitment.
“Farming isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “Bob and I don’t plan to be working as hard as we are today within the next five years.”
It’s a time of transition in Michigan agriculture, just like it was more than 30 years ago when Bob and Don started a cherry orchard. Young fruit farmers have options today that come along about once a generation, Bob said.
“I haven’t seen opportunities like this in 25 years,” he said.