Kroupa Orchards and Peninsula Cellars, Old Mission Peninsula
Every workday morning farmer John Kroupa, 34, leaves his Victorian downtown Traverse City neighborhood and drives up the hauntingly beautiful glacial ridges of Old Mission Peninsula to his office inside a farm outbuilding on Kroupa Road. It’s on the same farm where his young Bohemian great-great grandfather (son of a hat-maker, grower of potatoes, brother to 16) started his workday 149 years ago.
The 1860’s John Kroupa did things the old-country way. He set cattle out to eat all the little shoots left from the freshly cleared old growth forest, so he could farm the curvy land. He didn’t grow cherries, though the first cherry tree was planted on Old Mission in 1852. The fruit was still considered a bit of a luxury crop when his son, also John Kroupa, planted his first orchards in the early 1900’s. Donald Kroupa and his wife Evelyn continued the trend in the 1930’s.
Today, 21st-century John Kroupa and his dad, David Kroupa, raise 200 acres of active cherry trees. But for as much as he loves cherries and growing them, John is still adjusting to the financial wild card of the harvest. The gist: The processing plant sends their truck drivers to pick up the fruit as it comes off the tree, and the Kroupas send that tonnage away on a wing and a prayer, with no payment. Yet.
John explains, “The processing plants publish a market price before harvest starts, based on some educated predictions. But if the crop comes up greater than they expected, they will either make the quality grading higher, because they don’t need as much, or there is so much fruit that the price comes down, or they’ll just stop accepting fruit. And then you’re really in trouble.”
Payment, whatever it may shake out to be, comes after harvest. So to buffer the unknowns of a volatile cherry industry, in 1991, the year John graduated from high school, he went out with his dad on their ancestral land and planted the Kroupas’ first vineyard. Their first vintage came 3 years later. “At first we planned to sell the grapes to area wineries. That was what we knew—grow the fruit and sell it to someone else.”
But with Northern Michigan wine country rapidly coming into its own, they took the risk to keep all the profits from the grapes in-house by starting their own winery. “It was a scary risk,” says John.
He graduated in ’98 from Michigan State University, with a horticulture degree (“I know more about poinsettias than any one should.”) and in addition to helping his dad run the cherry farms, he now oversees Peninsula Cellars’ 25 acres of vineyards and the winemaking. True to its cherry roots, Peninsula Cellars makes three cherry wines with the Kroupas’ fruit, which they sample alongside their traditional grape wines in an 1896 one-room schoolhouse. And though they’ve planted new cherry trees every year for the last six years, as old orchards die out, the best orchard land is going into grapes. (The vines are not necessarily getting favored, but babied, because they are far more fickle than cherry trees are.) Says John, “When the cherries perform badly the winery is a consistent source of income for us. You might not get rich—you won’t get rich—but it will help you get by.”