Young apple trees on Johnson Farms | Jane Boursaw Photo
Young apple trees on Johnson Farms; high density planting | Jane Boursaw Photo
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(Editor’s Note: OMP resident John Wunsch writes about the innovative farming practices that are taking place on the Old Mission Peninsula. Read on for his thoughts. If you’ve got something to say about anything related to the Old Mission Peninsula, write it up and send it to me, [email protected]. Note that you may only submit opinion pieces once every 30 days. -jb)

Change is the only constant in agriculture, so continued success of agriculture demands innovation. In the 1970’s when there were three processors for tart cherries on the Old Mission Peninsula, there were no high-density apple tree plantings, no high-density sweet cherry tree plantings, no automated sweet cherry sorting facilities, no U-Pick operations, and no vinifera grape plantings or winery tasting rooms.

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The options available to farmers on the OMP have changed substantially in the past four decades, and those who have a long-term plan for their farm operations have made steady and significant changes to their farms over the years.

Some doors, like those to the departed tart cherry processors, have closed, but others have opened. Evolution is the key to survival in any endeavor, and the evolution of farming is happening on the OMP.

Tasting rooms are one of the valuable evolutions, as is the evolution of the production and marketing of sweet cherries and fresh apples. Apples have evolved to high-density plantings over the last few decades, and now sweet cherries are starting to do the same.

Today’s high-density apple trees produce 100 percent more apples per acre, are less labor intensive, and come into full production in one-third the time of the traditional trees that once covered hundreds of acres on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Johnson Farms high-density apple orchard on "The Forty," corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road | Jane Boursaw Photo; OMP Farming
Johnson Farms high-density apple orchard on “The Forty,” corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
Planting apple trees on Ward Johnson's farm on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Planting high-density apple trees on Ward Johnson’s farm on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

Tree farming continues to evolve with exciting new options all the time. Just three years ago, the first high-tech automated fruit-sorting facility east of the Mississippi was built on the OMP. It takes 36 infrared and natural color photos of each individual cherry in under ten seconds, so fruit is now perfectly sorted by size, color and quality for the different gradings required for modern marketing.

Another exciting development in fruit tree farming is high-density sweet cherry trees, which were first planted on the OMP in 2019. Much like the high-density apples that revolutionized apple production over the last 30 years, high-density cherry trees will revolutionize sweet cherry productivity and allow our farmers to supply regional markets from late June through mid-August.

High-density cherry plantings bring additional advantages. The highest value sweet cherries are “with stem” fruit; these low-to-the-ground trees are easier and more efficient to pick carefully and provide “with stem” fruit.

In another marketing advance, new late-season varieties of sweet cherries were introduced to the OMP just six years ago. They come into fruit later in the season, extending by two to four weeks the valuable summer production season. Those added weeks benefit U-Pick agritourism and source more local wholesale fruit to stores for longer.

Innovations in sorting means more dollars in the farmer’s pocket. “Farm gate value” is the price the farmer receives when they sell their product. The sweet cherry farm gate value paid by OMP’s high-tech automated fruit-sorting facility is over ten times that of the tart cherry and several times the highest historical tart cherry prices. The OMP high speed sorting center is driving significant revenue to OMP tree farmers.

This sole modern sorting center is likely driving as much or more revenue to OMP farms as all three processing plants did in the 1970’s. Those processing plants were also serving non-OMP farmers, sending much of their revenue off of the OMP. Progressive modernization of the fresh sweet cherry business is revitalizing the economics of OMP tree fruit farming.

Eventually – hopefully – the inequality of the international marketing climate that has badly damaged the tart cherry industry will be resolved. Despite that challenge to the industry which dominated OMP tree farming for decades, successful innovations for other tree fruits have led to more than 350 acres of new trees being planted on OMP in just the last two years. OMP farmers who are looking to the future and working towards sustainable family farming are adopting these and other new crop formats.

Beyond fruit production advances already underway, agritourism also needs to evolve, which will be facilitated by upcoming innovations in the township zoning ordinance. The planning department is considering numerous innovative opportunities, for example: processing kitchens, farm markets, farmers markets, winery co-ops, and on-farm activities like tours, hayrides, on-farm work experience, expanded bed and breakfast style on farm lodging, and prep kitchens for food service of OMP produce.

We should continue to support direct marketing and consumer retail opportunities for farmers, including winery tasting rooms and U-Pick farms, which enhance profit margins and engage the public with farming. Developing more of these opportunities is a smart way to strengthen farming on the Old Mission Peninsula.

-John Wunsch

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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 the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my 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. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

Bay View Insurance of Traverse City Michigan

1 COMMENT

  1. John interesting article. You fail however to point out that you led the charge to enact a new ordinance which forecloses non tech opportunities for peninsula farmers.
    The new ordinance all but forecloses new wineries or cideries from coming to the peninsula thus foreclosing additional market opportunities for peninsula fruit growers. You will recall that nearly all the farmers opposed
    that ordinance. It makes it economically impossible to open a new winery. Furthermore it limits the amount of fruit that a fruit processor can buy. I suspect this was always the intention of the PTP dominated committee that recommended these changes.

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