A New Cherry Heyday

Wisconsin's Stalwart Growers Reinvent the Fruit as a Form of Craft Agriculture

by: Elyse Glickman

The evolution of cottage industries into large-scale commercial movements has defined the American economy since its inception, yet the emergence of craft beers, craft spirits, and farmers markets from coast to coast underscores exactly why the former seem to be back in full force. With the uniformity that comes from mass production, is it surprising consumers and businesses alike are seeking homegrown products made in carefully handled batches?

Such is the case among the most self-determined cherry producers in Door County, Wisconsin, who carry on the entrepreneurial spirit of their predecessors: From the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, European settlers supported their families on small farms producing crops of cherries and other fruits while also selling to neighbors, local bakers, and other secondary producers. As a result, the Door Peninsula thrived as “Cherryland USA” from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Cherries at Lautenbach Orchard

The growth of agribusiness and related technology, however, brought about a seismic shift that led to Michigan taking the helm as the nation’s top cherry producer, followed by Washington State and Utah. Wisconsin now ranks fourth, harvesting roughly 5 percent of cherries grown in the U.S. (The marquee variety is the versatile Montmorency, a sour little wonder that can be enjoyed fresh, dried, or transformed into jellies, jams, pie filling, and cherry wines.)

“Small orchard growers walked away because they could not compete,” says Skip Keske of Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market, a Fish Creek–based grower established in 1917. “Team that with tourism and developers with fat checkbooks coming into the area, and chances are there is a condo, golf course, resort, or gated community where a cherry orchard stood.”

An Industry Titan in Transition

Dale Seaquist of Seaquist Orchards

Dale Seaquist, the playfully outspoken patriarch of Seaquist Orchards, is happy to reminisce on how his own family struck edible gold during Wisconsin’s cherry era. After his grandfather emigrated to the area from Sweden, he worked at a lumber mill in Marinette and saved money so Seaquist’s grandmother, father, and uncle could join him there.

After he learned of cherry trees thriving in nearby Sturgeon Bay, he visited and promptly ordered 700 trees for six cents apiece. “It did not take long for other people to catch on to the idea—at one point, there were numerous family farms growing 50 million pounds of fruit,” Seaquist says.

Cherry harvest at Seaquist Orchards

But when increased regulation put a burden on the burgeoning industry, “that took some of the fun and profitability out of raising the fruit, and it had an impact” that eventually forced many farms to close altogether. After weathering this turbulent time of transition, Seaquist Orchards is now the top producer of cherries in Door County.

The family behind Lautenbach’s, meanwhile, decided to embrace tourism to ensure their own survival. After diversifying their fruit crops, they opened a market and winery on their property and invited families in for cherry picking—giving them a figurative and literal taste of harvest season during the Cherryland USA era.

A Reputation for Quality

So, after this period of decline, what makes Door County’s cherry industry The Little Harvest That Could today? The Door County Visitor Bureau’s continued efforts to preserve this element of Midwestern history play a role, yet so does the persistent demand for high-quality cherries among consumers and various food producers.

Cherry ice cream from Door County Ice Cream Factory

Skip Keske attributes the area’s prime conditions for cherry-growing to “gentle breezes blowing back and forth year-round” from the Bay of Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, which “help maintain consistency of temperature.” The peninsula also sits on the Niagara Escarpment, a massive, limestone-based geological formation that originates in New York and runs through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. “Limestone gives off alkaline and calcium into the soil—two huge nutrients for cherry trees,” Keske explains, adding that the “ample amount of snow—60 to 80 inches [per year]—insulates and protects the trees.”

Modern technology has also found its way to both Lautenbach’s and Seaquist Orchards, including cherry harvesters that vigorously shake trees and send cherries onto a bed of canvas before they’re deposited into a bin. Although this cuts harvesting time down from days to hours, trees have a shorter lifespan and need to be replanted (nothing goes to waste, however, as the wood is also sold).

Door County Distillery’s Cherry Vodka

At Seaquist Orchards, operations are divided into four segments overseen by 15 family members. The biggest, the 1,000-acre farm, is dedicated to cherries as well as apples, plums, and other produce. Machines and other equipment used during harvest are produced or prepared at a facility in nearby Egg Harbor, while a processing plant adjoining the farm and the retail store produces roughly 70 products with Seaquist Orchards produce. According to Seaquist, 90 percent of their harvested produce is sold to outside sources, including Wisconsin fruit wineries and food producers, a trail-mix company in San Francisco, and an Atlanta confectionery.

With young trees typically taking about four years to bear enough viable fruit, Keske says growers apply pesticides as carefully as possible at the beginning of the season when the root system is particularly shallow. They’re also “more reactive than proactive” when it comes to potential threats, Keske says: “If we see something new such as a pest insect, we reach out to the University of Wisconsin, who will send people up to evaluate the situation and possibly mix up an organic, safe solution for removing the problem.” With stakeholders lining up to bolster this vital industry in the state, it seems Wisconsin-grown cherries have a legacy built to last.

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