Read all our farm reports here, where I follow along with my brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, and tell you what’s happening on Johnson Farms each week.
This week on the farm, cherry season is in full swing. It’s been in full swing since Friday, July 2, and it’ll be over before we know it, thanks to a small crop due to all the rain we’ve had, not to mention that hail storm in June.
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Cherries will likely be done by the middle of this week, making this year’s season super short compared to most years, especially given the amount of ground my brothers have to cover – upwards of 800 to 1000 acres with both their own farms and contracted farms from other growers.
If they finish shaking by mid-week, that will be about three weeks for the 2021 cherry season. Most years, we’re looking at anywhere from four to six weeks.
Shaking Light Brines on the Ground
After the dry spell we had in the spring – in June, I caught up with Dean and Laura running irrigation to the new apple orchard on a Sunday, so the new trees wouldn’t die of dehydration – it seemed like it started raining and hasn’t stopped. That’s great for gardens, but not so great for cherries that tend to crack with all the moisture and humidity.
All of that rain caused a good portion of the light sweet cherries – light brines, we call them (made into Maraschino cherries) – to crack. Because of the cracked fruit, they didn’t pass muster with the processors’ grading system, which requires no more than 15 percent being cracked. Or looking at it the other way, at least 85 percent have to be in good shape.
That meant that thousands of pounds of light sweets had to be shaken onto the ground. Sometimes cherries are shaken onto the ground because they don’t make grade, and sometimes because there are just too many cherries for the market. That’s what happened a few years ago – read more about that here.
Here’s a tank of light sweets in the orchard. I don’t know if these made grade or not, but they don’t look too bad, do they?
Shaking Dark Sweets and Tarts
After the light brines, the shaking crew moved onto dark sweets, and at this writing, they’re now onto tart cherries. These two varieties did not have as much damage as the light sweets, so they’ve been flowing through the cooling pad and onto the truck headed for the processor.
A few years ago, I wrote a story about how the cooling pad works – you can read more about that here. The short version is that the cherry shaker crew shakes the cherries off the trees in the orchards, the cherries go into boxes (for sweets) or tanks full of water (for tarts), which are then loaded onto a truck and transported to the cooling pad.
The tarts are then cooled down and shipped off to processors to make into tasty cherry things. Johnson Farms’ cooling pad is located on Center Road about a half-mile north of Mapleton.
Here are a few photos of the cooling pad this year…
One-Man and Side-by-Side Shakers
There are two types of cherry shakers used on Johnson Farms. The first is called a one-man shaker. I wrote about that a few years ago here (I’ve got videos over there, too).
The basic gist is that it’s a self-contained shaker that both shakes the cherries and sends them via a conveyer belt to a box or tank mounted on the shaker.
One person drives the shaker and someone else driving a forklift takes the box off the shaker and loads it onto a truck. Once the truck is full, it goes to the cooling pad. Below are a couple photos of my brother, Ward Johnson, on a one-man shaker.
The other type of shaker used on Johnson Farms is called a side-by-side shaker. One of the newer models, this shaker has two pieces – one that shakes the tree on one side, and another that catches the cherries on the other. Hence the name, side-by-side.
Here are a few photos of the side-by-side shaker on the “home farm” by the cooling pad. When I took these photos, there was also a one-man shaker working in that same orchard, as you can see in the bottom two photos.
And here’s a video I took of the side-by-side shaker when it first arrived at Johnson Farms four years ago. Hardly seems possible it’s been that long. Time flies when you’re shaking cherries.
And here are a few photos of its arrival on the farm in July 2017. It has not looked this clean since the moment I took these photos.
The Pump House
One integral part of running the cooling pad is what happens with the water once it’s done its important job of cooling down the cherries. My dad, Walter Johnson, crafted a system for this and set it up many years ago. In addition to being a farmer and a Lt. Commander in the Coast Guard reserves in Traverse City, he was also a mechanical engineer with a degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (where he met my mom).
There’s a little pump house on the cooling pad with a tank in there that collects the water. From there, the water is transported to the back of the farm, where it goes through a sprinkler system and is used to irrigate the orchards and land there.
Dad passed away in 2002, and let’s just say that it’s a good thing he made lots of notes for his mechanical setups on the farm and at our house in Old Mission. His wood boiler system at the house deserves its own story – I’ll write about that at some point.
As for the cooling pad water system, Between Dad’s initial setup and Dean’s maintenance over the years, it’s done a great job of getting the water where it needs to go.
Below are a few photos of the pump house, including Dad’s notes on the walls to explain how it all works and when maintenance took place. You can see that his “grease notes” go back to at least 1991 and continue through 2001, one year before he passed away. Hopefully, Dean’s kept track of when things were greased since then, because it appears to be very important.
At the bottom, I’ve included photos of the sprinkler system out back. Note that this is about a half-mile from the cooling pad, so there’s an extensive pipe system in place.