story by Kathy Steebs & photo by Heidi Hodges
Anticipation picks up in early spring, sometimes when the snow is still on the ground. But the fickle weather poses dangers for the fruit. Did an early thaw, followed by the inevitable “return to winter,” hurt the trees? Will the slow progress of spring cause a delay in the crop? Was there too much spring rain? Too little? Wind, hail, frost...there are so many things that could cause a catastrophic loss of an entire season.
Enthusiasts carefully monitor the cherry report online at www.wisconsincherrygrowers.org for updates on when to expect blossoms, and whether or not this season will see a bumper crop of cherries.
The truth is, Door County’s unhurried spring season is the reason fruit trees flourish here. Being surrounded by water on three sides keeps temperatures mild and gives the buds time to develop so blossoms are mature enough to be protected when Door County’s last spring frost finally arrives.
Thankfully, it usually all works out fine. But, still. We hold our breath.
Stages of spring and summer are marked by the orchards. In May, cherry trees, heavy with white blossoms, welcome visitors and locals alike to the finale of the spring season and foreshadow the season we’ve all be waiting for—summer! In June and July, we monitor the cherry’s progress through each phase of its life cycle—as the tart fruits turn from green to golden to finally, in mid to late July, ready-to-pick bright red.
We flock to the orchards and get our cherry fix. Some people are content to just catch a glimpse of trees bursting with their fruit as they walk into the air conditioned orchard market to buy cherry pies, canned cherries and dried or frozen cherries. But for the purists, only fresh cherries will do. And not picked by someone else—only pick-your-own-cherries will suffice. It’s all part of the ritual of Door County summers.
For those of us who spent part of our youth picking cherries for spending money, the notion of picking your own doesn’t conjure up the same romance. Instead, it takes us right back to the scorching sun, the sticky juice running down our arms, the stained fingers, having to have a heaping bucket to get your card punched for one pail (wasn’t that almost a pail and a half?) and someone always whining, “When can we call it a day and go to the beach?”
For many years, before the advent of the cherry harvesting machines, Door County relied solely on a human workforce for its brief picking season. In the early 1900s, local families were able to meet this need and make a little extra money on the side. But as the tart Montmorency cherry orchards started flourishing and more and more orchards were planted and in the 1930s and ’40s, local pickers could no longer keep up with the demands of the season.
The cherry growers cast their net far and wide to find extra picking hands and built housing—commonly known as migrant shacks—just for these seasonal workers. Youth from around the Midwest made the journey to Door County for the cherry season as did migrant workers from Texas, Mexico and the Caribbean.
During the WWII years, the orchard business saw its heyday with bumper crops of cherries, but the local workforce dwindled as young men went off to fight the war and young women went off to work in factories. During that time, the Door County cherry industry turned to a rather surprising workforce to meet their cherry picking needs—German prisoners of war.
But today, the bulk of the cherry crop is harvested using machines. Many orchard owners reserve a few trees for the cherry picking purists, who keep a close eye on the cherry report and then drop everything to spend a day picking and then a few more days pitting, canning, and drying the tiny, delicious fruits.
As autumn winds blow in, and another cherry crop is in the books, it’s time for apples, pears. And don’t despair if you missed pick-your-own season this year, there are plenty of frozen containers, already pitted and ready for use, available at orchard shops around the county.
But if picking the fruit (or coming to see the county in full blossom) is your burning desire, the next season is only months away. Keep your eye on the cherry forecast website and start making plans.