Cherry Bay Orchards, Suttons Bay
It,s a beach day in Leelanau County—glorious sun, mellow breeze. Matt Gregory, 30, is at the Herman orchard near Omena, gently and swiftly using a forklift to load tanks filled with a sea of tart cherries and cool water onto a truck. He makes a quick call on his cell phone, clipped to his ear, and suddenly a group of teenagers on his staff run and roll down a prickly thistle-strewn hill next to the orchard, scramble onto the truck and skim the leaves and other orchard flotsam off the top of the tanks. The second they’re done, they run and disappear over the hill to another task in the orchard.
Matt drives the thousands-of-dollars-worth of fragile fruit to his family farm’s headquarters on Jacobson Road in one of Cherry Bay Orchards’ custom converted school-bus flatbed trucks, cab painted cherry red. At the cooling pad, farm staff members move at a delirious pace—unless you are working you are in the way. To get the fruit off the trees at its prime, they operate 24 hours during harvest. And to create solidarity and boost morale among their hardworking employees, every year Cherry Bay Orchards comes up with staff T-shirts (’04: The Fast and the Furious, ¡Ándale!, ’08: Shake it up, baby). Even the iced tea is expected to work, steeping itself in a big jug in the noon sun.
Matt and his dad, Bob Gregory, talk to each other with their hands as they unload the fruit and get it to the hydro-cooler, maneuvering their forklifts so fast it appears as comically fast time-lapse photography capturing an entire day in a few moments.
“It’s a controlled chaos,” says Matt, who started on the farm at age 12 planting trees that they’re now shaking, and, along with other Gregory siblings and cousins, is poised to carry on the family farming legacy.
Bob Gregory dreamed up a plan while at the Farm House Fraternity on Michigan State University campus in the late 1960’s and recruited his brother Don. Instead of being dairy farmers like their parents, they would start their own cherry orchards in Northern Michigan. Fresh out of college, they didn’t have the cash to purchase acreage, so they leased and managed orchards. They grew Montmorency tart cherries in the rolling-hilled microclimate of Suttons Bay and started their families. When Matt and his siblings and cousins were growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Gregory brothers purchased an orchard base. They wanted to grow and process their cherries, so they started a sister business to pit and either freeze or dry their harvests of tart and sweet cherries. The Shoreline Fruit brand of dried cherries in grocery stores across Michigan is their fruit.
The next generation is adding their talent and expertise: Matt decided after some college to come to work on the farm, Matt’s younger brother Andrew just followed suit. Their cousin-in-law, Mark Miezio, came after seven years as an engineer and off the bat developed a difficult to explain but magnificently innovative hydro-cooling tank system—a green way to recycle water on the farm and at the same time super-cool their fruit to 35°F within an hour of it coming off the tree for optimum quality.
On his way to Hansen Foods for a quick sandwich from the deli, Matt stops in at Black Star Farms winery in Suttons Bay, where his wife Megan pours wine. They give each other a little peck, and she gives him her paycheck to deposit. Like many young couples making a living in Leelanau County, they hold down a few jobs to make it work. Matt also runs an outdoor guiding service called Turkey Bay LLC.
Today he’s going home at 3:30 p.m. for a little catnap, so he can stay sharp on the road tonight driving a truck of cherries down to their processing plant in Hart. He misses his wife this time of year. He’ll try not to wake her when he gets home in the wee hours, but, he says, “the dogs always bark.” After a couple hours of sleep, he’ll pull on his “Shake it up, baby” T-shirt and get at it again.