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.
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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.
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.
At the cooling pad, the cherries are firmed up by cooling them down with water.
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).
Here is Cory Reamer loading cherries onto a tanker to be shipped elsewhere for processing.
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.
Did you or do you work on a cherry shaker crew? Share thoughts and memories in the comments section below!