The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Cherry and Apple Farmer

Cherry and Apple Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

May 23, 2010

Ben LaCross, 31, grows tart cherries, sweet cherries and apples in partnership with his parents on their 750-acre farm in Cedar, Michigan. As a second-generation cherry farmer, LaCross has been growing and harvesting the fruit with his family for all his life. Most of the fruit grown on LaCross Farms is sold under the Leelanau Fruit Company Label.

How did you get into cherry/apple farming?

After graduating from college with a degree in business, it became clear to me that farming was a career where I could use the skills I learned in school while working with the land and doing the variety of things that make my career in agriculture so rewarding. I began working on the family farm directly after college and have enjoyed all the ups and downs that come with life on the farm.

While growing up, my father expanded our cherry acreage to include an older apple orchard. When the life cycle of that orchard was complete, we replanted with cherries. I missed apple harvest in the fall, so in 2008 I had the opportunity to take over two existing apple orchards and to diversify our operations, once again including apples. While growing high quality apples is definitely a difficult endeavor, it has been a very enjoyable learning curve.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

Ten years ago we relied on harvest equipment that took six people to operate and harvested two trees per minute. Now, we have changed harvest equipment to machines that take only four people to operate and can harvest four trees per minute. This efficiency is not only beneficial to us by reducing labor costs, but we can also harvest our perishable commodity quicker with better quality.

How will cherry/apple farming evolve in the next five years?

We grow 75% of the tart cherry crop in the country in my region of Michigan. In the last 10 years, we have produced one extreme to another (zero crop in 2002 to the third largest crop in history in 2009). This has resulted in extreme price volatility, and a very unstable climate for farmers. I think we will continue to see changes in harvest technology. Hopefully, researchers will continue to breed new fruit varieties that have high yields while reducing the pesticides necessary to grow high quality fruit.

What is your greatest challenge as a cherry/apple farmer?

Our area is very desirable for development and other uses. As we have seen in the last several years, the price volatility of growing cherries makes it difficult for growers to make long-term investments in the fruit business, while the allure of selling out to developers remains strong. The greatest long-term challenge will be if we can grow demand to equal supply, thus returning a sustainable profit to growers.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

Cherry farming is a fairly unresponsive sector of agriculture. It takes us seven years to get any production from newly planted trees, which have a life of around 30 years. Therefore, we are not able to change crop rotations from year to year to chase market demands. 

Cherry consumer eating habits have changed drastically over the last 20 years. In the past, ours was a market dominated by cherry pie. Any other uses for cherries were considered secondary and it was easy to make planting and harvesting decisions.

Recently we have seen a shift from dessert dominance in our industry to increased demand for the health benefits of our “superfruit.” Cherries are loaded with antioxidants; therefore the consumer is looking for healthy ways to incorporate cherries into their everyday diet. Previously we could harvest a relatively immature fruit, because the manufacturer would add sugar to make it an appealing desert. Now, we must focus on sun-ripening to maximize the antioxidant potential in the red pigments in our fruits. 

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

Michigan has a great program for farmers who want to verify that the practices they are doing on their farms are environmentally friendly, called the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program. This is a voluntary program that rates how farmers store and use crop chemicals and fuel, use cover crops to limit erosion (a real problem with our sandy soils), and in general, utilize farming practices that limit our impact on our environment. We are in the final phase of this program on our farm.

We have incorporated an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program on our farm as well. IPM is a system of scouting and historical mapping that allows us to ensure that the pesticides we are applying are timely and necessary to control a disease or insect that is detrimental to the health and consumer safety of our fruit. We have incorporated new sprayer technologies that accurately place crop chemicals exactly where they should go, while limiting overspray. This has greatly reduced the amount of crop chemicals we use on the farm.    

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

My family owns and operates a local fruit processing plant. We have a wholesale outlet where we sell our cherry juice concentrate, dried cherries, and other fruit related products. We also sell our cherry juice concentrate through several local grocery stores. And I sell fresh apples through two local farmers’ roadside stands.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Most people have great questions about how life is on the farm. I have encountered the occasional “I didn’t know there were any young farmers anymore.” This has enabled me to educate that person on the state of agriculture and all the ambitious young people that make the future of farming in the United States so bright.