This week we had the pleasure of speaking to one of our very own local growers, Jim Nugent. Jim has grown up in the cherry growing business and has a unique background of experience (owning his farm in Suttons Bay, MI) blended with a lifetime of continued education (Jim spent many years working with MSU Extension carrying out research that pertained to the cherry industry). It was our pleasure to get the grower angle in order to share with you how important these small orchards are to the vitality of cherry country here in Northern Michigan. With that, we’ll let Jim do the talking.  

Q: Please state the name of your orchard and its location. What is the size?

Sunblossom Orchards located in Suttons Bay, MI. We are a small grower (30 acres of tart cherries + sweet cherries).

Q: How did you start cherry growing? Did this start as a family business or a personal endeavor?

My wife and I bought first orchard in 1980 and our current orchard in the fall of 1985. For many years, she ran the orchard; I ha da  full time job with MSU extension and research) working with the cherry industry. Due to this I was very familiar with the industry, all the way from production through marketing. Initially, our orchard also had apples and peaches but overtime, we decided to just focus on cherries, downsizing our operation. I’ve been retired from MSU extension for 10 years now, so currently I do the bulk of running the farm.  

Q: What does a normal year look like in the business of cherry growing? Which is the most interesting month?

In winter, we get the orchards pruned and ready for next year, cutting trees back so that they get enough sunlight in, which keeps them healthy and producing good fruit. Once the snow melts and growth begins, we move into growing season, first making sure we have good fertility through the trees, managing diseases and insects, on into harvest time which spans from late July to early August for the Suttons Bay area. Harvest is when you see the fruits of your labor, it’s definitely the most hectic time, but once harvest is over, we still have to manage the trees and keep them in good health. For example, we have to keep leaves on the trees post-harvest since the fruit buds that produce next year’s crop begin forming two weeks after the previous year’s bloom. This really determines the quantity and quality of consecutive year’s crops.

Cherry growing is a multi-year process; essentially, planting an orchard is a decision that you make for a 30-year cycle. During the first five years, the orchard typically does not bear fruit. Harvest will begin in about year six and continue until the orchar gets too old and unproductive, which usually happens about age 30. Post-harvest, we ensure there is a good reserve of carbohydrates and nutrients in the trees so that they are hardy enough to survive our winters. It’s very different growing a perennial crop versus an annual crop, which makes you focus on the vitality of the tree year over year.

Q: Name three words to describe the business of cherry growing.

  1. Risky. Cherries are very susceptible to late frost in the spring and the weather during bloom, I can remember two years we had very little fruit, specifically in 2002 you couldn’t have picked enough cherries in our orchard to make a cherry pie.
  2. Challenging. I enjoy the challenge of trying to make everything work to produce a good yield and exceptional quality fruit.
  3. Enjoyable. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t enjoy it, it’s been in my blood since I was a kid on the farm. I can’t imagine just going south in the winter and leaving the orchards behind.

Q: How has the business of growing changed over the years? What is the biggest concern of growers today?

The two biggest changes I can think of include in the 1930’s when pitters were developed (before that time, cherries were canned hole with pits), which really added to the ways that cherries could be sold in the market and secondly in the late 1960’s, when the harvest was mechanized allowing us to grow cherries with greater efficiency and much less labor. It would have been very difficult to compete globally since cherries are a truly global market had this not taken place. One of the more exciting areas of research currently includes whether or not we can grow cherries in higher density systems. The advantage that this would bring includes production starting sooner on trees and a multitude of other things that could give farmers more of a yield, more quickly.

Q: What’s the best thing about Northern Michigan cherries?

Michigan grows 75% of the nation’s tart cherries with nearly 50% of the US production grown in Northwestern Michigan within a 60-mile radius of Traverse City. The tart cherry crop is really well suited to our climate (Lake Michigan cools us in the spring which delays bud development and gets buds past the critical phase for frost). Likewise, the Montmorency (tart cherry) crop does not like excessive heat so Lake Michigan also works to cool us in the summer. We truly are the IDEAL climate for growing this fruit. What makes us stand out as the cherry growing region is the quantity and quality of the cherries produced.

Q: What is special or interesting about your orchard/ operation?

My orchard is the place where I can take information that I’ve learned and will continue to learn and put it into practice. It’s rewarding to see the fruit of my labor and the knowledge transforming into the crop, it really culminates at harvest time when you see the nice quantity and quality of fruit- it’s really something you can be proud of.

Q: How does your orchard depend on the local community or Northern Michigan in its entirety?

In many ways. We have a research station in Northwestern Michigan that is very unique. It was founded by the growers here and given to MSU to operate. It’s a center for new information generation and dissemination through the industry and also has a very nice conference facility where we host many industry meetings, from multiple grower meetings to international conferences. This industry has always been willing to share information and knowledge. It really helps all of us. With about 75% of the production coming from Michigan and the remainder spread out over six other states,  there’s really no one else in North America doing very much research in tart cherries so the industry looks to us for leadership in production techniques and management.

 Additionally, when it comes to marketing and promoting the crop, there’s virtually no fresh market (they are too soft to be shipped, they’re actually harvested in water to keep from bruising). We have to work with processors that can get the crop pitted and frozen and into a sellable form (like dried!) The grower/ processor relationship is very important, every company has their own marketing niches but overall for the industry, we have a very good promotion program through the Cherry Marketing Institute, choosecherries.com, that can do the things that we individual growers can’t. They fund a lot of studies on the health benefits of cherries. Historically, we were growing for just the dessert market, but now as we look to the future it’s important for the industry to look for ways to reposition itself, such as in the dried and juice market. We’ve been able to make tremendous strides to reposition this industry to stay viable for the future.

Q: What is the most exciting thing about being a grower? The most frustrating?

I enjoy all of it, especially growing young trees. I enjoy the science of growing, the challenge of integrating the science of production with the economic reality of farming. You’re always dealing with different situations and issues according to season. However, there’s really no better time to be in the orchard than in bloom. The smell of the blossoms, the hum of the bees that we bring in from a local beekeeper to pollinate, it’s great to walk through and to take it all in.

The most frustrating aspect would have to be new invasive insect, Spotted Wing Drosophila. It’s a big challenge to the cherry industry. We have a research center adamantly working on solutions, especially in the last two years.  

Q: What piece of information or knowledge do you wish you could share with the general public about cherry growing?

First, I would sure love to have more people appreciate the breadth of the health benefits that we have in cherries. There are really significant health benefits, some that are not found in many products, particularly a cherry’s anti-inflammatory properties and the melatonin found in Montmorency cherries.

Second, everyone should understand the complexity involved. The thing that is least understood is what it takes to grow cherries, the amount of investment and risk and the amount of knowledge needed. It’s a very fragile fruit that is quite responsive to weather and influenced by the site you put it on. It’s not just a matter of planting the trees and waiting to pick the fruit. It’s all about producing something that is truly a fun crop, that has health benefits and also has great flavor.

Thanks Jim, for your time and insight into such a special part of what make Northern Michigan a unique and exhilarating place to work and play! Enjoy pictures of Sunblossom Orchards below.