Over the weekend, I walked over to the cherry tree along our driveway to see if the cherries were ripe (and if the birds had left enough for me to pick.) And this year, the news was good!
Lots of cherries were there, glistening bright red in the morning sun. Seeing them really brightened my day. My family has a close connection with Michigan cherries. Family legend has it that my great-great grandfather, Eugene Power, was one of the first to plant cherries in northwestern Michigan back in the late 19th Century.
Fifteen or so years ago, my cousin Tom Power, a Grand Traverse County Circuit Judge, and I visited the old family farm near Elk Rapids, a town 15 or so miles northeast of Traverse City. We were chasing down our family history.
We talked briefly with the woman who then lived there, who said, “Yes, indeed, a family called Power had once owned a cherry orchard there.” And out in the backyard was a very, very old cherry tree that might have been from that original orchard.
And I have a family photograph that shows my great-great grandfather in a white shirt and tie, dark suit and Panama hat standing in the middle of his orchard. He’s looking proprietary, surveying his newly planted cherry trees, with a farmhand standing behind him with a pruning knife in his fist.
But what kind of cherries did he plant? Almost certainly, they were Montmorency cherries, called “sours” to distinguish them from the dark red eating cherries, “sweets,” which also grow in the area.
Historically, cherries quickly became a dominant crop in the region, and thrived in the sandy, well-drained soil. They also benefited from the moderating influence of Lake Michigan, which kept temperatures depressed in the spring, thereby delaying the flowering of the trees until the danger of a killing frost had – mostly – passed.
My father, also named Eugene Power, grew up in Traverse City. He told me that his father, Glenn, who started out as a surveyor, helped his grandfather lay out the cherry trees in long, straight lines. My dad liked to remember that his first job was out on the family farm, picking cherries at 10 cents a lug.
A lug, by the way, was a shallow crate used to transport cherries to market, usually weighing 22 pounds. That’s a lot of cherries … but back then a dime was a lot of money!
It wasn’t easy to be a pioneering farmer back then. You couldn’t be sure the trees, once planted, would thrive. And there was always the risk of a late frost freezing the flowers. The markets for your cherries were far away and uncertain. The capital you had invested in the land and the trees was always at risk. But risk taking and determination were the way of my family --and countless similar pioneer families. They did so much to make our state and our nation.
I think of them often with gratitude and admiration.
Things aren’t a “bed of cherries” for today’s growers, either. Despite efforts to maintain the orchards in the area, today’s frenzied development has put enormous pressure on cherry farmers, who have always been subject to the wild swings of the farm economy.
Get a big crop, the price goes way down. Get a small crop, the price goes up, but you don’t have that many cherries to sell. It’s a tough decision to stay in the cherry business, especially when you can make so much money by selling the land and getting out.
I’d hate to see the cherry orchards – the key distinctive aspect of the region’s landscape – fall prey to the developers.
Fortunately, at least for now we still have lots of luscious cherries at this time of the year, the beautiful white blossoms in the spring, and a sense of our shared agricultural continuity.
And we can reflect on the special glories of a Michigan summer as we eat our cherry pie. If you’d like to try something delicious, here’s my family recipe, handed down from my grandmother:
My father preferred vanilla ice cream with his pie. I’m more of a purist. But whatever your taste buds prefer, cherry pie is a delicious way to celebrate Michigan – and the wonders of summer in our state.