It’s summertime in Northern Michigan and there are boats to float, bonfires to build, brats to grill, fish to catch, friends to make and promises to keep, but picking juicy cherries with you is always the cherry on top.

Featured in the July 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy. 

Sarah and Phil Hallstedt are a first-generation farming family growing eight varieties of sweet cherries at their U-Pick farm, Hallstedt Homestead, in Northport. At King Orchards U-Pick, Bakery & Farm Markets in Kewadin and Central Lake, brothers John and Jim King, along with their wives, Betsy and Rose, and their children have been growing fruit since 1980. The Kings currently harvest over 140 acres of Montmorency tart cherries, plus Balatons and black sweet cherries. We asked these families to share the juiciest details of their life on the orchard. Here’s their farmer wisdom…

What three words best describe what you feel when you put your head on the pillow after a long day in harvest season?

Hallstedts: Exhausted, satisfied, planning ahead!
Kings: Satisfaction, optimism and gratitude.

What’s a fun part about your jobs as cherry farmers?

Hallstedts: We love sharing the experience of what we have here, and the joy they have of picking and eating an amazing fruit! Many people don’t know what a difference it makes to have truly fresh fruit right off the tree. We love exposing folks to fresh fruit, many for the first time.
Kings: We tend the land together, we run our business with the support of each other and we wholeheartedly welcome visitors to our farm, treating them as part of the family. We love sharing the abundance (and joy!) of our harvest with our customers. We take pride in getting our hands dirty and seeing the smiles that result.

What do people say they love most about U-Pick cherries?

Kings: They love being in a working, healthy orchard and seeing where their food actually comes from. Families love this unique outdoor experience. This is an activity that grandma is as happy to be participating in as the 3-year-old is. You’re never too young or too old to enjoy U-Picking (it is always fun to see the kids and orchards grow from year to year).

Photo by Andy Wakeman

Tell me about some of your best or most beloved customers?

Kings: We love kids at King Orchards so many of our favorite customers are 3 feet tall, when running down the grassy row is as much fun as picking the fruit.

For the current generation: What was it like to grow up as cherry farmers’ kids?

Kings: Tons of fun! My parents were flexible enough that they were able to come to every sporting event but always went back to work at night. I always called my mom the best 5-minute chef and since we always lived right next to the market, our dinners were always interrupted by my mom running out to greet a customer who happened to drive in after hours. Taking a tractor ride or going on a fruit delivery with my uncle Jim never got old. Unlike most kids who vacationed in the summer, our fun was always centered around snow, whether it was skiing or the ice-skating rink my dad made in the barnyard. —Second-generation farmer, Jack King

What is the vibe you hope to create at the farm?

Hallstedts: To feel welcomed (and not intimidated if they are picking for the first time); excited anticipation of being at “ground zero” of what it takes to get good fresh fruit to the market. We provide everything they need: buckets, instruction how to pick and bags in which to take home their fruit. We also try to teach them about how we follow environmental and groundwater safety rules and that we try to be good stewards of the land.

What varieties do you grow?

Hallstedts: Ten years ago, Phil chose eight varieties that were either awesome to eat fresh, and/or could handle shipping, as we would like to be able to start direct-shipping this summer. We grow Ebony Pearls, Attikas, Reginas, Sweethearts, Ulsters, Cavaliers, White Gold and Summit.

What advice do you give your U-Pickers?

Kings: One advantage to picking tarts at King Orchards is that we have a commercial pitting machine that removes the stone from the cherries you pick. This is important since 99% of the uses of tart cherries require pitted fruit. Once they are picked and pitted, take them home and can or freeze them within 24 hours. When you freeze them in 4-cup increments, this makes it very easy to use for recipes.

Read: Your Guide to Northern Michigan U-Picks

Photo by Dave Weidner

How is your whole family involved in the farm/orchard?

Hallstedts: Our kids were 13, 11 and 8 when we bought the property, and they have done everything from helping to get rocks out of freshly-tilled dirt to whitewashing the tree trunks with carwash mitts and white latex paint to protect the young tree trunks from the sun burning them (reflected from the snow). Our kids are now 22, 25 and 27; our youngest, who is getting a degree in mechanical engineering, comes home for breaks and helps to repair equipment. The other two live in Chicago, and come when they can, often with friends.
Kings: There are currently 10 immediate family members actively working on the farm. There’s a good chance you’ll run into one of them at either the market or while U-Picking!

Any last thoughts about why this is your calling?

Hallstedts: We have both worked in corporate America, and see this as our next season that we can participate in together.
Kings: There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing our customers who appreciate the orchards and our hard work.

Food photos by Dave Weidner

Where to Find U-Pick Cherries

A few hours at a Northern Michigan U-Pick farm lands you loads of fresh air and ultra-fresh fruit.

FRISKE ORCHARDS // 10743 N US 31, Ellsworth, 231.599.2604
Offers a variety of delicious fruit and farm activities. Indulge in a slice of Grandma Friske’s pie.

HALLSTEDT HOMESTEAD // 8227 N Matheson Rd., Northport, 317.440.9273
This first-generation farming family is offering eight varieties of delicious sweet cherries and guided U-pick tours. Check their Facebook page for what is currently being picked and hours.

KING ORCHARDS // 4620 N M-88, Central Lake, 231.544.6479; 986 US 31 S, Kewadin, 231.264.0715
Offering fruit stands, farm markets and orchards, King Orchards operates hundreds of acres of local fruits, specializing in tart cherries used for making pie.

MCMANUS SOUTHVIEW ORCHARDS // 313 Garfield Rd., Traverse City, 231.946.5867
Tarts, sweets and fresh-baked turnovers.

NORTH STAR ORGANICS // 1139 Forrester Rd., Frankfort, 231.352.4865
The Kobernik family welcomes you to their 20th year of pick-your-own organic sweet and tart cherries.

RENNIE ORCHARDS // 11221 Munro Rd., Williamsburg, 231.264.8387
Family operated since 1938, Rennie Orchards grows 18 delightful varieties of cherries.

10445 N US 31, Ellsworth, 231.599.3222
With a distinct focus on cherries and their health benefits, Royal Farms is a great place to get your fix of Northern Michigan cherries. Go wine tasting after you’re done in the orchard!

SHOOKS FARM // 5833 Shooks Rd., Central Lake, 231.544.6418
104 years and still growing. Cherry pitter on site!