2018-08-30 / Front Page

Full-time orchardists reach cherry goal

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff

GRATEFUL FOR the end of the season, Homestead Hallstedt owners Sarah and Phil Hallstedt smile as they enjoy a night out to celebrate both their wedding anniversary and the end of the cherry harvest. GRATEFUL FOR the end of the season, Homestead Hallstedt owners Sarah and Phil Hallstedt smile as they enjoy a night out to celebrate both their wedding anniversary and the end of the cherry harvest. Editor’s note: Staff writer Jen Murphy has been chronicling the efforts of the Hallstedt family to make cherry farming their full-time occupations. This is Murphy’s final installment in the four-part series. We are pleased to share with readers that the Hallstedts had a successful harvest. Of course, there were challenges, which are explained in the coverage.

They set the bar high and reached their goal.

Self-described “green” cherry growers Sarah and Phil Hallstedt wrapped up their first season as full-time farmers with a win.

In April, just as buds were starting the transition into blossoms, the couple hoped to harvest 50,000 to 60,000 pounds — that’s 25 to 30 tons — of sweet cherries. They met their goal by having 50,000 pounds hand picked from their trees — a 40 percent increase from last year’s harvest. Their success puts them on the right path to reach their end-goal of harvesting 80 to 100 tons of sweets by 2022.

But the season was not without challenges, and the Hallstedts agree they have a long road ahead of them.

In Leelanau County, cherry harvest brings a fast and furious time.

“We are tired, physically and emotionally,” Sarah said. “In general, we are tired because we are getting up at 5:15 a.m. and going to bed at 10:30 p.m. — I’m just not a 5:15 person.”

The Hallstedts had a total of 13 picking days over three-and-a-half weeks. “It just seems like so much more. It feels like a lot longer,” Sarah said.

That may be due to the ups and downs the couple experienced while growing, tending and harvesting fruit from their 22 acres of sweets.

“It looked like we were headed into a really good season,” Sarah said.

But the strong start didn’t last, however. “We had some great fruit, then the quality fell,” Phil said. “The size and quality is really critical for fresh fruit. Really critical. And we had cracking and small fruit with the last variety. It did not size up and it cracked, so that was a double hit.”

He explained a late April snow and then hot temps at the end of May contributed to issues they had with the later cherry varieties.

“The season started later, then got hot,” Phil said. “There were fewer growing days… We had trouble with the last two varieties due to some rain events back in late June and in July. That hurt us.”

The drop in quality, of course, results in a lower price from the processor. And, like all growers in Leelanau County, the Hallstedts are waiting to be paid for their cherries.

Processors sort and grade cherries received by growers, then generate a report based on the fruit size and quality. That report ultimately determines what a grower gets paid.

According to Sarah, the time gap can be anywhere from two to six weeks.

Fortunately, bills for chemicals and fertilizer can be paid once a grower receives payment for harvest.

But labor was paid immediately. “So it’s cash out of pocket for us,” Sarah said.

To help close the gap, the couple found ways to bring more cash into their pockets this year.

One of the Hallstedt’s first-time efforts was giving orchard tours. It was a success. The tours were free, Sarah said, but groups were asked to purchase a minimum of $20 of cherries.

More than 100 people came to tour Hallstedt Homestead, and next year Sarah said they have plans to expand. She added that tour-goers enjoyed seeing the “back door” to the operation.

“The feedback was incredible,” she said. “People enjoyed it — they said they would be back next year. And I would definitely do it again.”

It was also the first year for their cherry CSA, which the Hallstedts plan to keep on next year’s menu.

“We had a handful of people sign up this first year,” Sarah said. “But we built relationships - we even got some pickers working for us from those relationships.”

These volunteers, Sarah said, were wonderful. “We worked alongside them, we talked. We had people telling us, ‘I had no idea what it took to grow cherries.’”

Other efforts included developing a stronger online presence through social media and website design as well as participation in the Northport Farmers Market.

Now that the season is over, the Hallstedts took time to look back on the past season to determine what worked well, and what didn’t, Phil said. “When we get done it’s a relief that it’s over, but then we need to look at what we have to get prepared for next year.”

And based on this year’s experience, the Hallstedts anticipate a few changes for next season.

“I think we can potentially improve some of our pruning techniques,” Phil said. “There are very few things you can control - it’s so dependent on the weather and the labor… so potentially we will alter our spraying techniques, but that’s not a sound science, if you will, just a few little tips that may help us in the future.”

So will the not-quite-newbie cherry growers continue their cherry journey?

“We are going to keep doing it,” Sarah said. “Partially because we are vested, partially because we love it.”

Phil agreed wholeheartedly.

“We love the relationships, the fruit, the integration into the grower community,” he said.

But there’s still the challenge of making the numbers work.

“We need to find a way to make it more financially viable,” Phil said. “We aren’t going to get rich from this, but we want to make it self-sustaining. It’s got to be sustainable… And we are hopeful it can become financially viable, with some adjustments. Otherwise, why would we do it?”

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Interesting series Ms Murphy.

Interesting series Ms Murphy. Thank you.