All Tarted Up—A (Very) Brief Geography and History of Northern Michigan’s Cherry Agriculture

We have the state of Michigan (and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin’s Door County) to thank for our cherry pies. Indeed, the largest producer of tart (sour) cherries is Michigan, responsible for well over half of them (Utah is number two). And in Michigan, it’s the Leelanau Peninsula that serves as the center of the industry. So, how did this happen? The tart cherry is a bit hardier than its sweet cousin, so Michigan isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary place to grow them.

We can thank the French for the initial appearance of cherry agriculture in Michigan. French colonists planted cherry trees in towns they founded, including the Michigan city of Detroit. But the advent of commercial cherry agriculture can be tied to Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty, who settled in Northern Michigan. He planted trees on Old Mission Peninsula near what is now Traverse City in 1852 and the area’s physical geography proved advantageous for cherry production. This established the Leelanau region as a place to grow tart cherries. Commercial production was introduced in 1893 at Ridgewood Farm, also near Traverse City. As they (and just who is “they”, anyway)—the rest is history!


And physical geography. The Leelanau Peninsula is well situated environmentally for cherry production. This 30 mile (48 km) extension into Lake Michigan benefits from the moderating influence of the lake’s waters. Water has a high specific heat—the amount of energy required to raise a unit mass of something by 1°C; that means it takes a lot of heat energy to raise the temperature of water. You’ve heard of the expression “a watched pot never boils”? Well, if that pot is full of water, it seemingly takes forever for that to start boiling. It also takes a long time for water to cool down. Thus, places near large bodies of water tend to have more moderate temperatures, even if they are located at higher latitudes.

So, how does that relate to cherries? Well, it can get pretty cold up north, but proximity to the water means that it won’t get as cold as some place in the middle of a large land mass. Thus, the cherry trees in the Leelanau Peninsula are protected. And in the spring? Again, the water’s tempering influence protects the trees from late frosts that follow spring thaws. How? A burst of warm weather can trigger the blooming of the cherry trees. But the nearby water means that the weather won’t get quite as warm, reducing the likelihood of blooms to fall victim to a late, killing frost. Is this foolproof? No—the unusual spring of 2012, with its near summerlike temperatures in March (record-setting, no less) followed by a cold April ruined Michigan’s sour cherry crop. But all things considered, the presence of Lake Michigan benefits the tart cherry industry in Michigan.

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