From the Farmer's Tractor
February 22, 2009
Don Gregory, 60, grows 800 acres of tart cherries on his farm in Suttons Bay, Michigan. His Cherry Bay Orchards farm, located on Lake Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, also consists of 200 acres of sweet cherries and 400 acres of apples. Gregory and his brother, Bob, started their own fruit operation in 1972. Their cherries are marketed under the Cherry Bay Orchards label and the Shoreline Fruit label.
How did you get into cherry farming?
After growing up on a dairy farm in another part of Michigan, and teaching school for four years, I joined my brother and some of his fraternity brothers in establishing a cherry growing operation in the Traverse City Area of NW lower Michigan. I have been growing cherries since the early 1970’s, but have been a farmer most of my life.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Methodologies used in growing cherries continue to evolve. In the last 10 years a more specific targeted approach to application of crop protectants has developed. Most growers have traditionally been very environmentally conscious. During the last 10 years it has become more important to be proactive in promoting the ways we try to protect and enhance the environment on our farm.
How will cherry farming evolve in the next five years?
As consumers, we like the highest quality products at the most reasonable price possible. As growers, we need to continue to find ways to meet this need so we do not become a casualty of the cost price squeeze. Growing cherries (as with other tree fruits) remains labor intensive. If we are to remain competitive with fruit growers in other areas of the world with less expensive labor, we will need to continue to improve efficiencies in our operation.
What is your greatest challenge as a cherry farmer?
Balancing the economic (and horticultural needs) with environmental, social, and government expectations while trying to maintain a quality family life will continue to challenge us as growers into the future. There are times when needs in one area overshadow the others, but if we can work towards a balance, we will survive.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
When we establish an orchard, we are making a long term investment. The trees will not begin producing fruit for commercial use until year six or seven, and the productive life of an orchard is 20 to 25 years. The type of product through which the cherry reaches the consumer changes as our eating trends change as well. For example, the market for dried cherry products has continued to develop and grow during the past few years. Knowing what the consumer wants next year may be difficult, but in the tree fruit business the question we have ask is: What will the consumer want five to 20 years from now?
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Since the majority of our equity is in our farm, both financial and sweat equity, we, like most farmers are strong conservationists. Not only do we live on our farms, but also when it comes time to move the farm to the next operator, we want it to be at its best. In the big scheme of things, we’re fortunate to have a small piece of property to care for. It is our plan to leave it in as good, if not better condition than when we started caring for it.
Many of our orchards are on sandy and hilly ground, so many of our practices are geared towards preventing soil erosion. We also strive to use crop protectants that are earth friendly, and use them in ways that minimize their impact on our environment. Trickle irrigation is utilized to minimize our water usage.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
Since tart cherries are only grown in a few locations in North America, we consider ourselves a locally-grown product. That is why we call cherries ‘America’s Super Fruit.’ Our cherries reach the consumer in many forms – dried, juice, frozen, in fruit filling, and as deserts – so the roads to the consumer are quite varied.
In products that we produce, we can trace the cherries back to specific orchards and provide records on how the cherries were produced and cared for. We find that many consumers not only like to know where their cherries come from, but find comfort in knowing that they are being raised in a responsible manner.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Many consumers are amazed at what it takes to produce a cherry product for market, as well as the many parameters and issues we deal with in growing a crop of cherries.