Leelanau’s Cherry Industry

Why Grow Cherries in Leelanau?

In the 19th century, the Leelanau peninsula (and the entire Grand Traverse Region) was identified as a prime location for fruit growing. The climate, tempered by Lake Michigan, hilly terrain, and sandy soil created especially good conditions for the cultivation of the sweet and tart cherry.

The first cultivated cherry trees were planted in the early 1850’s by the Protestant missionaries in Leelanau Township. Over the 40 years most pioneer farmers planted a few cherry trees along with other fruit trees. When they harvested more than they needed, they shipped the extra cherries to Chicago, IL or Milwaukee, WI.

Beginning in the 1890’s, large orchards of cherries were planted. The County’s agricultural land had been stripped by lumbering, then planted in potatoes. Years of potatoes growing had depleted the nutrients in the top layers of soil. The cherry did well on the same ground if it was planted deeper and fertilized.

Stanek Orchard, Elmwood Township, 1920’s.

Good cherry prices were incentives for farmers to plant cherry trees. Other reasons included that cherries could be grown on the sandy hills poorly suited to other crops and they were a relatively easy crop to grow in comparison to other crops and raising livestock.

By 1905 cherries were recognized as an important crop in the region. In 1912 a canning plant was built in Traverse City so local fruit could be shipped and sold as both canned and fresh fruit. Marketing of fresh sweet cherries has come full circle. Tarts and sweets were only shipped out as fresh fruit in the years before 1912. Beginning in the 1920’s, with the growing tourism industry, roadside markets appeared selling fresh sweet cherries for the home and “fancy pack” sweets to be sent to customers by order. Today Grand Traverse sweet cherry growers are again cooperating to develop the fresh sweet cherry market.

At the end of the 1920’s growers first became concerned about the increase in cherry production. Several cherry grower organizations were started in response to a predicted overproduction crisis. Some of the solutions proposed were to unite cherry growers and canners in order to take advantage of credit facilities open to them through the Federal Government and to develop additional markets for cherries.

Hand Picking
Picking cherries is tedious work. It takes about 10 times as many hours to pull a ton of cherries as it does to harvest a ton of other fruit. With a short season, and small yield per worker, large numbers of workers were required to bring in the harvest.

Who Worked the Harvest?

The first cherry crops were picked by local folks, Ottawa/Ojibwa and European settlers. Women, children and men worked for extra income they could earn. The first fruit harvesters from outside the region increased dramatically during the Great Depression. Single men, would jump the train headed north to Leelanau County, and were often characterized as hoboes and tramps. Some workers were farmers themselves, who came north to harvest fruits during their own slack season. Seasonal workers were a diverse group of people, predominately African-Americans, Hispanics, and Latinix arriving from far and wide. Despite advanced technologies that decreased the number of workers needed over the decades, seasonal workers have played a crucial role in Leelanau’s agriculture. Many of these families returned for decades to the same orchards, living in tents, or temporary living quarters provided by the orchard owners. It is generally acknowledged that many of these living conditions were less than satisfactory. Some individuals and families even chose to settle permanently in the County.

M. Basch, Martha Gould, Floy Grener, Mary Gould. Storm Hill Orchard, Empire, c. 1905. Photo Courtesy of the Empire Heritage Group.

In the 1950’s The Department of Agriculture and Michigan State University agriculture engineers began developing a mechanical means of harvesting cherries. Based on the technology developed for harvesting pecans, they experimented with equipment that would shake trees and cause ripe cherries to drop onto a collecting mat. By the late 1960’s the cherry shaker had revolutionized the cherry industry. Using a shaker, 4-5 workers replaced 250 needed to harvest the same amount of cherries. The growers did not have to rely on hiring large numbers of seasonal workers. Harvesting costs were reduced by about 50%.

Double Incline Kilby Shaker at Stanek & Sons Orchards. Elmwood Township 1976. Photo Courtesy of the Stanek Family

From those first few cherry trees planted, 171 years ago, Leelanau County now grows cherries on 11,050 acres as of 2018. In addition to the growers and their families, the residents of Leelanau County have found employment in the orchards, processing plants, and related businesses as well as the cherry-based food industry. For many other residents and visitors, the cherry orchards are a part of what makes the Leelanau peninsula a scenic landscape.

Leelanau County has boasted some of the largest cherry orchards in the United States. Redpath Orchard (East Leland), started in 1910, was at one time the largest in the state. Cherry Home (Leelanau Township) became known as the largest tart cherry orchard in the world in the 1920’s. Today there are several record orchards, Mitco (Leelanau Township) and Cherry Ke (Suttons Bay Township and elsewhere). Cherry Ke is one of the largest cherry orchards in the United States.

Cherries are probably known as the main ingredient in America’s favorite fruit pie. Pies have been made with fresh or canned (or today, frozen) tart and sweet cherries. The pie filling, thickened with flour, cornstarch or tapioca, is traditionally lightly flavored with almond. In recent years, the cherry has become part of main courses, salads, side dishes, breads, sodas, wine, and cocktails. Nutritionists have found that the cherry is an excellent source of potassium and Vitamin A and a good source of phosphorus and calcium.

Photo Gallery of Cherry Farm Scenes in Leelanau County

*Compiled from the “Cherry Jubilee Exhibit” from 1991.
Thank you to the MSU Horticulture Station for their assistance with local agriculture statistics and information.

Explore more historic cherry industry images from Leelanau in our online archives.