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Natalie, 16, greets customers and weighs the cherries they pick, using an old brass-beamed platform scale. Picking buckets hold about 15 pounds of cherries, and most U-pick customers will fill one or two.

Natalie, 16, greets customers and weighs the cherries they pick, using an old brass-beamed platform scale. Picking buckets hold about 15 pounds of cherries, and most U-pick customers will fill one or two.

Photo by richard lehnert

For several decades, Klenk Orchards has been an island of sweet cherries in a sea of apples. In this land versus sea analogy, land is winning. Rodney Klenk is growing more cherries—45 acres now—and fewer apples—120 acres—and more of his Fruit Ridge neighbors are adding sweet cherries to their orchards as well.

“Don’t make me out to be some kind of genius,” Rodney said, laughing. “Cherry season is a really fun time for us. It’s a family deal, not just for us but also for people who come here to pick. We spend our wedding anniversary picking cherries.” And also the July Fourth holiday three days later.

Rodney’s grandfather, Otto Klenk, started growing cherries in 1945 on the apple-­dominated Fruit Ridge near Sparta, Michigan, an enterprise that was taken over by his son Ronald. In 1988, Ronald transferred management to son Rodney and his wife, Chris—but he still works there, pursuing cankers with pruning shears in hand, among other projects he likes to do.

Rodney and Chris have four teenaged children, all of whom grew up working on the cherry farm and earned money for college that way. The cherry season in late June and early July is perfect for kids who are on summer vacation but will be going back to school when apple season arrives.

Good Fruit Grower visited Klenk Orchards twice last year, the first time in deep snow when the International Fruit Tree Association toured the farm in March. Then, everybody talked about the technical side of growing cherries in Michigan and similar environments across the humid side of the continent. Fruit cracking and bacterial canker dominated the discussion. The second time was during cherry season, when U-pickers were in the orchard, and daughter Tori, age 13, was operating her own business selling cherries for $4.50 a quart from a cherry-shaped stand in the yard.

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Tori buys cherries from her dad and mom, paying them the wholesale price, and sells them retail, pocketing the profits of her labor. She’s not the first Klenk child to do that, but Natalie, now 16, has moved on to weighing cherries and collecting money from U-pick customers at the barn. Mackenzie, 18, and Rock, 15, work on the grading line for the wholesale side of the Klenk cherry business. Chris plays hostess, directing U-pick customers to trees with the ripest cherries. Chris is a registered nurse who works in a hospital in Grand Rapids and puts her people skills to work on the farm as well.

Rodney manages the work crews and the sorting lines and oversees deliveries of wholesale cherries.

Rodney says about half the production of the 45 acres, comprising more than 15 varieties, is sold U-pick at the farm, and the other half is graded and packed for wholesale, either sold at the farm gate or delivered in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, market area. That combination works out well, because U-pickers work only from the ground. “We let them use short, two-foot ladders,” Chris said, “but our employees pick the tops and also the trees that are farther away from the buildings.” Next year, she said, they will add trailers to take pickers further away—and make it easier to bring the cherries back.

Filled buckets weigh about 15 pounds. Customers usually fill one or two, but sometimes less. Some get enough fresh cherries to eat for a few days, and come back once or twice more during the short season, Rodney said. Others pick for canning or freezing. Many of their best customers are immigrants who settled in Grand Rapids after coming from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico, where cherries are eaten in greater quantity. They find a day in the orchard picking cherries is a great day.