SWEET cherry pickers
Cherry crops have seen better days, but that hasn’t stopped Jim Bardenhagen from filling as many orders as possible.
It’s just taking a little extra effort this year.
“We want to get the same quality to our markets as we have in the past,” Bardenhagen said. “But that quality just isn’t on the trees.”
Erratic and cold spring temperatures took a major toll on the yield and will definitely cut the season short. while it drove prices up, many would agree that a Leelanau summer without sweets and tarts, well, just isn’t summer.
I was able to spend some time with Jim and other members of the Bardenhagen farm, watching the process from tree to market and lending a hand where I could. I learned very quickly that keen attention to detail is required at all stages of harvesting the small, round fruit.
When I arrived, a crew of seven was lined up along a conveyor belt flashing their hands back and forth to remove any undesirable pieces.
“We take the lugs from the orchards and run them down the belt,” Bardenhagen said. “We’re basically looking for any imperfections like cracks or bacterial cankers and making sure they don’t get into the lugs we send to the store.”
After spending some time with the sorting crew, Jim and I took one of the farm’s white delivery vans to Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay to complete an order. We brought five lugs with us. Though Bardenhagen Farms sends much more downstate, Jim feels that shouldn’t be the top priority.
“Our main focus is to get fresh produce into the local stores,” he said. “If there’s no need for it at the local level, we’ll send them downstate to get packaged and shipped, but we want to reach our local market first.”
One of the biggest concerns locally has been the price.
It’s the simple rule of supply and demand, and though the demand for the local staple remains fairly unaltered, supply is far below average.
“Only about 10 percent of the sweet cherry crop can be harvested,” Bardenhagen said. “It really varies by tree, but normally we get about eight to ten lugs per tree.
According to Bardenhagen, the largest portion of the price increase is due to labor. Handpicking and sorting undesirable cherries has slowed the process, requiring more hours than normal.
Some varieties fared a little better, but others were lost almost entirely. The Sam variety of sweet cherry is among those that were a bit more resistant, yielding between two and three lugs per tree. Tart cherries are in jeopardy though, as most varieties fell below a 10 percent crop yield and won’t be harvested.
“We will have some Balatons,” Bardenhagen said. “It’s a very small crop, but we’re going to harvest as much of it as we can.”
I was able to get my hands a little dirtier the second day.
Pulling in behind me was a truck picking up lugs for Bill’s Farm Market in Petoskey. Bardenhagen appeared from the back, pulling a pallet of about 30 lugs. We spent a little time loading them into the truck before departing to Steve Bardenhagen’s to do some orchard work.
When we arrived, a truck with a cooling unit was waiting to be loaded. Steve, along with his father Gary, arrived with a couple of employees after only a few moments. They quickly secured a pallet of cherries and Steve lifted it into the back of the truck using a tractor mounted forklift.
As they closed the cooling unit’s doors, Jim explained how I should go about picking.
“Right now we’re picking stem-on, so you can’t just grab hold of the fruit,” he said. “It’s a little slower, but you have to take it by the stem and tip the cherry to keep it from breaking off.
“We try to keep the stem on for most of our local markets.”
Gary armed me with a pail and he and I set out into the orchard where he dropped me off with the nearest group of pickers.
The crew was already hard at work. All down the rows of trees, ladders extended upward while lugs sat on the ground, stacked on top of each other. Some were full of cherries, others remained empty waiting for the next picker to return with a full pail.
“We start at 7 a.m. and work until about 4 or 5 p.m.,” said Nano Lopez, one of the pickers from Texas.
After watching the crew pick for a short amount of time, I was given the opportunity to snag a couple myself.
The pail sat just above my hips, clipped to the straps around my shoulders at two off-set points to keep it from tipping over. I reached up and grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch, pulling it toward me to get to the fruit.
As instructed, I placed my fingers where the stem was anchored to the tree and tipped the fruit. It came off easily and I dropped it in my bucket. I repeated this process a couple times over, dropping unusable cherries on the ground.
The time moved quickly and it wasn’t long before I was removing the pail from my shoulders. Moving faster though, is the truncated cherry season.
“The sweet cherry crop usually goes to about the third week of July,” Jim said. “This year they could be done as early as next week or so.”
He urged me to enjoy it while I can and as I left the Bardenhagen Farm, Gary offered me a handful of the product I had picked.
I couldn’t refuse. After all, what’s summer in Leelanau County without a handful of sweets?