Here’s How a Cherry Shaker Works – VIDEO

Feel free to share this post...

It occurs to me that folks who recently moved to the Old Mission Peninsula or Grand Traverse area might be unfamiliar with the mechanical harvesting of cherries. Before the advent of cherry shakers in the 1970s, cherries were hand-picked, mainly by Mexican migrant workers who showed up by the thousands every summer. I’ll write more about that in a separate story. There’s a lot to say about those hard-working pickers.

When cherry shakers came along, they sped up the harvesting process immensely. I was a teenager in the 1970s, and pretty much everyone in the family worked on the shaker crew, as well as a lot of our friends. Here’s a quick rundown of the cherry shaking process.

Old Mission Gazette is Reader Supported.
Click Here to Keep the Gazette Going.

This video shows a one-man cherry shaker in action. The driver is my nephew, Nick Johnson (my brother Ward’s son), who’s a great shaker driver. It takes a gentle touch, because you don’t want to shake a tree too long or hard, thus damaging it. This orchard is at Neahtawanta, one of the farms that Ward harvests as contract labor.

The shaker resembles a lobster as it approaches the tree, grips the trunk of the tree, and shakes the cherries onto a circular tarp.

The cherries are then rolled into a tank attached to one side of the shaker. Below is a full tank being dropped off and a new one put on by a forklift driver. You can see the cherries being rolled into the tank, at which point someone skims the tank for leaves and twigs. Badminton racquets work great for this. They’re lightweight and get the job done. And they’re lighter than a tennis racquet.

When the tanks are full, they’re loaded onto a truck and taken to a “cooling pad,” where they’re cooled down with water before being shipped off for processing. Here’s a forklift driver loading a truck in the orchard.

cherries, cherry, cherry shaker, forklift, cherry shaking, johnson farms
A forklift driver loads a full tank of cherries onto a truck | Jane Boursaw Photo

Below is one of the older cherry shakers in action. This one has a “catching frame,” which is pulled by a tractor through the rows in the orchard, stopping at each tree. “Tarps” are then rolled out underneath the trees (I’ve always admired tarp-pullers, because it’s a challenging job to do day after day, week after week). The tarps are then rolled back into the catching frame and the cherries rolled into a tank on the back of the frame, at which point the sorter uses their trusty badminton racquet to skim off the leaves and twigs.

This is the type of shaker crew I worked on as a teenager with the rest of my family, and all our friends had jobs as tarp pullers, sorters, truck drivers, etc. I started out skimming tanks on the back of the catching frame with my friend Sally Rogers. Then my mom, Mary Johnson, and I drove forklifts – she putting the empty tanks on the back of the catching frame; me taking the full tanks off and putting them onto the trucks to be taken to the cooling pad. Eventually, I ran the cooling pad and loaded the semi-trucks taking the cherries downstate to processing plants.

Here’s another view.

Sometimes there are cherry shaker refugees, like this little bird in my brother Dean Johnson’s hand (looks like a farmer’s hand, yeah?). When he set the bird down, it hopped off, so I’m hopeful it survived being shook out of a tree.

cherry, cherries, cherry shaking, cherry shaker, bird
Cherry Shaker Refugee | Jane Boursaw Photo

At the cooling pad, the cherries are firmed up by cooling them down with water.

cherries, cherry, cherry shaking, cooling pad
Cherries being cooled down at the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo

Here’s a close-up view of the piping. My dad, Walter Johnson, designed an elaborate cooling system at the Johnson Farms cooling pad (which complexity has since been modified since he passed in 2004).

cherries, cherry, cooling pad
Cherries being cooled down at the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo

Here is Cory Reamer loading cherries onto a tanker to be shipped elsewhere for processing.

cory reamer, heatherlyn johnson reamer, johnson farms, cherries, cherry farms, old mission peninsula, old mission michigan, old mission, traverse city, michigan
Cory Reamer loads cherries at Johnson Farms | Jane Boursaw Photo

And because I can’t resist, here’s a photo of my brother Dean Johnson and his daughter/my niece Heatherlyn Johnson. Together, with help from many, they keep Johnson Farms rolling along.

cherries, cherry, dean johnson, heatherlyn johnson reamer, johnson farms
Dean Johnson and Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer of Johnson Farms | Jane Boursaw Photo

Did you or do you work on a cherry shaker crew? Share thoughts and memories in the comments section below!

A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper.

Because Old Mission Gazette is a "Reader Supported Newspaper" -- meaning it exists because of your financial support -- I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks our way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the OMP. In a time when local news is becoming a thing of the past, supporting an independent community newspaper is more important now than ever.

To keep the Gazette going, click here to make a donation. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

Bay View Insurance of Traverse City Michigan


    • Thank you! That’s actually my amazing sis-in-law, who runs the Peninsula Market, but she deserves all the love. Sometime I will write about the family of men who only marry women named Jane. 🙂 -jb

  1. Can I use this photo on your website in my book please? The very top one. I am writing a book about cars and trucks. I would like this photo to appear in my book.  It is supposed to be below the subtitle “tree shaker”. Thanks a lot.

  2. love to see how the whole process works. I have a home on the old mission and it is a joy to see all that happens on the farms and in our lovely community. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks, Ana! I was talking to my brother Dean this morning, and he said things are changing so fast on the OMP as far as the farming community. His generation of farmers are getting older, youngsters aren’t taking over the farms like back in our dad’s generation, and cherries aren’t a great economic crop like they once were… so it will be interesting to see what happens with all the farmland in the next generation or two. I’m going to do an interview with him and get his thoughts.

  3. My Grandfather is Leland Gore. I used to go up to the farm on Old Mission and help harvest cherries every summer when I was in Jr High/High School. I always loved my time up there. Grandpa is a shy person, and the last person to brag about himself. But I’ve heard tell that he was instrumental in developing the earliest one man shakers. The farm is still alive today. My Uncle Mike rums it now I believe. I had some fond memories at that farm. Old mission is a slice of paradise

  4. HELLO, really enjoyed your article. I actually was one of the many pickers in the 60’s that went up for the summer to pick cherries with my brothers and sisters. I lived in Bay City and my father would take us all up during the summer to pick cherries in Ludington. My parents were both from Mexico and settled in Michigan. Come summer they took us off the streets and put us to work; my fondest memories were all the kids I met from Texas during the summers and the bonding it created between my siblings. Thank you


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here
Please enter an e-mail address

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.