by Gail March Yerke
Cherry orchards are big business in Door County, WI. Located on the northeastern upper peninsula of the state, it’s often referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Agritourism is an integral part of the area’s economy. While people are drawn to these scenic coastal towns throughout the entire year, during several weeks each spring visitors are treated to one of nature’s spectacular displays: 2,000 acres of cherry trees in full bloom.
The Sweet Success of Agritourism
Destination Door County, the region’s visitor bureau, hosts a website that includes a virtual tour of a cherry orchard and the “cherry meter.” The bureau is in continuous contact with orchards in spring to report when their cherry trees will be in bloom. From early blossom stage to harvest, the six-stage meter, shaped like a clock, is updated throughout the growing season so visitors can plan their trip around the cherry tree season.
“The orchards are a big draw,” said Senior Media Specialist Jen Rogers of Destination Door County. Add in that there are 500 acres of apple orchards in bloom about one week following the cherry blossoms, and it’s a unique travel destination. “In late April we start getting phone calls. They see that Washington, D.C. has the cherry blossoms, so they start calling us to see when the cherry blossoms are going to happen in Door County. About 60 days after blossom is when the cherries are out. We have many people that drive here for the day or spend the weekend doing the pick-your-own cherries tradition.”
When it comes to cherry orchards, Seaquist Orchards does it all. The Sister Bay agribusiness features 1,200 acres of cherry trees and 40 acres of apples. The farm market location offers U-pick sweet cherries mid-July through early August with 20 varieties to choose from. The market also has a gift shop and their own bakery that offers daily fresh-baked pies, muffins, cider donuts and other sweet treats. One division of the company processes their own jam, jelly, fruit butters and pie fillings. Another segment of the family business is their fruit processing facility. The processing plant can de-stem, pit, grade and pack their own tart cherry harvest. In a typical year, that’s six million pounds of cherries. Having additional production capacity, their plant also processes fruit for other growers in the region.
It took decades to build the orchard business to where it is today, however. Great-great-grandfather Anders Seaquist planted the first cherry trees on their farm in the early 1900s. Situated between Lake Michigan and Green Bay, the temperate weather and excellent Door County soil were ideal growing conditions for his fruit trees. A multi-generational operation that has a passion for farming, today you’ll find Jim and Robin Seaquist and their family carrying on their tradition of growing fruit. “We’ve done this all of our lives and just continue,” said Jim. “We are fortunate to have a lot of family working with us.”
Crop Maintenance & Harvest
Cherry harvest season lasts a few weeks, usually mid-July to early-August. There’s a great deal of maintenance and other farm work that needs to be done before harvest. From late autumn through the winter months, a smaller crew prunes the trees as long as there isn’t too much snow. Beginning in late March, a larger crew is brought in to take advantage of warmer weather and complete staff training. “There’s also a fair amount of pruning in July and August while we still have our seasonal labor,” Jim said. Foliar feeding is one of their fertilization programs. “We have to replace what the plants take out of the ground,” he said. They add more trees to the orchard each year; this year they planted 2,000 more of the tart Montmorency cherry trees.
Unlike tart varieties, sweet cherries are handpicked by orchard staff for market sales. For the Montmorency variety and other tart cherries, machine harvesters are used to shake the trees when the fruit is at peak ripeness. Within about three seconds, the fruit is shaken from the tree and caught in a catching frame. The fruit is then stored in a tank of cold water and sent on to their processing plant.
Their wholesale division offers more than 100 products. Cherry salsa, cherry pie filling and an extensive selection of jams and jellies are just a few Seaquist Orchard products that can be found at retail stores throughout the Midwest. The orchard website facilitates seasonal holiday gifts that can be direct shipped and their corporate gift box program offers a personalized selection of products that businesses can send to clients.
Autumn is celebrated in October with an apple festival. Families enjoy a straw bale maze for the kids, a visit with Johnny Appleseed and apple treats from their farm market bakery. Growing 30 varieties of apples, their website has an apple chart with harvest times and which apples are best for eating, baking sauces or salads. Honeycrisp apples are the orchard’s number one variety, representing about 50% of apple sales. While the tart cherry crop is machine harvested, apples need to be handpicked by orchard staff. Seaquist has an additional U-pick location in nearby Sturgeon Bay.
Predicting the Future
As far as predictions for the 2022 orchard season, Jim is optimistic. Even though people were cautious during the early part of the pandemic, they still wanted to be outdoors and visit farms. “Since July of 2020 we have been wide open and business has been really good. A lot of people just wanted to go out to the country,” he said.
If you are considering adding fruit trees to your farm operation, he offered a few tips and suggestions. “It’s definitely a long-term commitment and takes quite a bit of resources to get an orchard up and running,” he said. “With the right business plan and the right varieties, however, it can be quite rewarding.”