The Michigan State Horticultural Society gave a distinguished service award to Earl Peterson, an orchardist and entrepreneur who has had a major impact on the fruit industry in west central Michigan.
Born on the family fruit farm near Hart, Peterson left for college in 1965 and became a public school teacher. In 1971, he and wife Linda purchased their first farm as a summer time occupation. Peterson left Hart Public Schools, where he was a principal, in 1979, to farm full time.
The Peterson family is now farming more than 2,500 acres, mostly tart cherries and peaches.
A major transition took place in 1984 when Earl started processing fruit for his farm and for local growers. That business, Peterson Farms, now has three processing facilities in Oceana County, processing tart cherries, apples, sweet cherries, blueberries, peaches, juice, juice concentrates, and others products. It is the largest privately owned fruit processor in Michigan.
Other related companies have been started by the Peterson family—Cherry Technologies Inc.; Oceana County Freezer Storage Inc, which has capacity to freeze and store 180 million pounds of product; Peterson Farms Trucking; Oceana Technologies, a microbiological testing facility; Peterson Farms Fresh Inc., which specializes in fresh-cut fruit, particularly apples. Over 500 people are employed with Peterson Farms and affiliates.
Peterson Farms is a family business. Linda is the chief financial officer; son Aaron is president and chief executive officer; daughter Sarah Schlukebir is vice president of sales and marketing; and son Mark is vice president of operations.
Peterson has been involved innumerous industry organizations, He is a member of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board and a past chair; member and past chair of CherrCo, a tart cherry marketing cooperative; Cherry Marketing Institute; and past chair of the Michigan Cherry Marketing Committee. He was named Cherry Industry Person of the Year in 1986 and Outstanding Cooperator of the Oceana Soil and Water Conservation District in 1989. He received the Oceana County Ground Stewardship Award in 2004.