Photo Essay: Cherry Trees and Colored Leaves
For many U of M students, my hometown of Traverse City, Michigan is associated with summertime memories of climbing sand dunes, swimming in Lake Michigan or shopping for souvenirs in the locally-own storefronts downtown. At least, that’s what they tell me when they find out where I’m from.
The truth is, I didn’t actually grow up in Traverse City; it’s just easier to say that since most folks have never heard of my true home, Suttons Bay. Nestled along the eastern coast of the Leelanau Peninsula, Suttons Bay is about a 20-minute drive north of Traverse City. In this town and many others scattered across our peninsula, cherry, wine, and apple farms take up much of the landscape, one of which belongs to my family: Livingston Cherry Farms. Growing up in the pinky of the Michigan Mitten, this is where my summers were spent.
With a 200-acre farm, our operation is considered small compared to others in the area, but that allows us to maintain and manage it without needing help outside the family. Since a lot of the land is hilly, some of our orchards overlook the bay, as pictured above. The colors are just beginning to change in this image, as fall was just beginning when it was taken. Today, the entire landscape is coated in the 31 inches of snow that fell a few weeks ago.
While most of the land is taken up by row after row of sweet and sour cherry trees, the farmstead is a cleared plot of land with a farmhouse, garage, chicken coup, pole barns, bunk houses, sheds, and more. Most of these buildings store farm equipment nowadays, but in the early 20th century some were also home to farm animals.
In one such building we store our truck for hauling tanks to our processor. After the cherries are shaken off the trees and into the tanks, they are chilled in cold water, sampled, and graded before being placed onto the bed of our truck with a forklift. The wood-paneled bed of this truck can carry eight tanks, each of which weighs roughly one thousand pounds when full.
The cherries are chilled to ensure they retain their shape and firmness and aren’t damaged during transport. In order to keep cold water circulating throughout the tank, metal rods are placed on the bottom of the tanks before they’re filled. After they return to the farmstead full with cherries, they are placed on the cement pad pictured above and hoses are attached to the rods. Then, the cherries are chilled for 20 minutes before being loaded up and taken to the processor.
While most of our tanks have “LIVINGSTON,” my mother’s maiden name, printed on them, the older ones are labeled with the initials “IRL” for the late Ivan Raymond Livingston, my great grandfather. The names help the processing plant identify the owner of the tanks so that they can be returned for the next load once emptied.
Another set of buildings are bunk houses, located across the road from the farmstead. As the name implies, these buildings housed bunk beds back in the days when most farm labor was done by immigrants. Since housing costs in Suttons Bay are difficult to afford and labor shortages resulted, many farms built such worker housing to be used during harvest.
Although it’s fall now and the farm is quiet, it’s an entirely different place during harvest each July. Then, all hands are on deck and the days are seemingly never ending. My work day would start at 6am promptly seven days a week. I would go inside the farmhouse to hang my great, great aunt’s American flag on the flag post pictured above and then go to the pole barn to fire up my tractor. Then, the cycle would begin. I would place a tank on the pad, fill it with water, transport it to the orchard, return to the farmstead with another tank full with cherries to place on the pad for cooling, and start again. Depending on the quota for that day (how many tanks our processor could accept from us), the day could end anywhere between 5 and 10pm.
Despite the long days, returning home to work the harvest season is something I will always cherish. Even though my summers weren’t always spent climbing the sand dunes, swimming in Lake Michigan, or shopping downtown, I had some pretty neat experiences along the way. Now, as I look forward to graduating this spring and moving to Chicago, I’m able to appreciate those long days on the farm like never before. And I hope the visitors to my small hometown in the pinky of the Michigan mitten get to catch a glimpse of the family farms like mine, that result in fruits and vegetables on their dinner tables.