Leelanau county is home to more than 11,250 acres of cherries, and Stanton Orchards owns and farms over 320 of them. Purchased as a hobby farm by Earl Stanton in 1960, Stanton Orchards has evolved into a large and impressive commercial cherry operation under the direction of Greg Stanton who is Earl's grandson and now co-owns the business with three of his siblings. When Greg took over the operation the orchards where deteriorating due to mismanagement and aging or neglected trees. Under Greg's management, new trees were planted, ailing trees were brought back to life and production levels steadily increased. Today, Stanton Orchards is a large producer of brine cherries, a variety of sweet cherries called Hudson’s which ripen later and help to extend the sweet cherry season, and Montmorency tart cherries which they sell to processors and also use to produce Stanton Orchards Tart Cherry Concentrate.
For those of you unfamiliar with the process of cherry harvesting, allow me to paint a quick picture so you fully appreciate your next quart of cherries.
The day starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Cherry teams comprised of farm families, migrant workers and the occasional high school or college students who arrive sleepy-eyed and still exhausted by the previous day's work. The orchard manager gives the day’s orders depending on the ripening schedule which spans 4-6 weeks - Light sweets, then dark sweets, tarts and finally Hudson sweets, and the teams disappear into the trees.
Shaking teams are comprised of a collection of machines which encompass each tree. The hydraulic shaker surrounds the trunk of each individual tree and applies a specifically calibrated vibration which shakes the cherries from the tree. On either side of the actual shaking mechanism is an angled tarp system which directs the cherries onto the second machine - a mechanical tarp and conveyor which encircles the tree under the shaker and catches the fruit. Once the tree has been shaken, the mechanical tarp retracts from its position under the tree and lifts to tilt the cherries on to a conveyor belt which runs parallel between the tarp and the machine and driver. The cherries are then carried back to a tank on the back of the machine which is filled with cold water to keep the cherries firm. One person walks beside the tank to clear sticks and debris and to signal to the fork lift driver when it's time to off load a full tank and replace it with an empty one.
At Stanton Orchards, two members of the shaking teams are Greg's sons Henry and Cooper ages 13 and 15. As the 4th generation of Stanton Orchard cherry growers, the boys learned young about the ups and downs of farming first hand, and have a deep understanding of what's behind each quart of sweets at the farm stand or in the cherry pies filling grocery store shelves. When it's harvest time, the boys share a room in order to offer sleeping quarters to workers arriving for the harvest. On hot summer days they are in muck boots to their knees driving tractors and directing tanks instead of at the beach with friends. And, while they may complain about it now, as their mom says, “I tell my boys, you are going to look back on these days and think about how cool it was that you got to do this. Not many kids will have the kind of work ethic you have because of this experience. Not many kids can say they know how to drive a tractor or operate a forklift. You are better for this." ...We can't agree more.
If you dine with us in the next few weeks, try our local greens salad with Sweeter Song greens, Stanton Orchards sweet cherries, toasted walnuts, Point Reyes blue cheese, honey balsamic vinaigrette and fresh tarragon. I bet you'll have a hard time not thinking about Henry and Cooper and all the hardworking cherry growers in our area. See you then.
Watch the video of our visit to Stanton Farms HERE