By Amanda Popp
Visitors from all over travel to northern Michigan to experience the cherry capital of the world. Popp Farms, in Leelanau County, is not just a local, small fruit farm. It’s a reflection of old-fashioned values and morals that are sometimes lost in the hurried pace of our culture.
My grandpa says that, compared to last year, this season’s tart cherry crop is expected to be much lighter, due to the early frost this year that is mostly out of his control.
“My crop is light this year,” he said. “It’s not heavy at all. It’s about half a crop this year, compared to the last two years.”
My grandpa says that the only effect the coronavirus had on his cherry crop is the ability to sell them this year for a better price.
“This year, because of the virus, they aren’t allowed to ship cherries into the United States from some of these countries that were shipping them in cheaper than what we can raise our cherries for,” he said.
My grandparents, Rich and Betty Popp have owned a fruit farm my entire life. They bought the 108-acre farm about 45 years ago, which includes about 29 acres of tart cherries.
“This isn’t a big farm operation,” my grandpa said. “I’m considered one of the small cherry farmers in Leelanau County.”
They also grow raspberries, blueberries, apples, peaches and apricots. My grandma also makes homemade fruit jam, which like anything my grandma makes, is absolutely amazing. They sell the cherries to a processing plant downstate. The other fruit is either sold in their self-serve fruit stand or at the local farmers markets.
My grandpa, 86 years old, worked as a mason for more than 30 years and started growing cherries in addition to his full-time job at first.
My grandparents have been married for 60 years, have six children and nine grandchildren. My dad, along with my aunts and uncles usually come back home every year to help with the cherry harvest. The tradition has even been passed along to my cousins, my sister and me.
During middle school and high school, I was able to occasionally help during cherry season in July. I got to see the ins and outs of the cherry shaking process. My job was skimming branches and leaves out of the tanks as cherries made their way from the conveyer belt, along with using hand signals to alert the conveyer driver (usually one of my uncles) that the tank was full.
“We use a two-man Kilby shaker,” my dad, Wayne Popp said. “One person drives each side of the machine. One side of the machine shakes the cherry tree and the other collects the cherries in a conveyer belt that transfers the tart cherries into a steel water tank.”
My favorite part of the process is always watching the cherries go from the tree to the tank, a mesmerizing sight of cherries making their way through the conveyer belt. The bright red cherries always look a little more appetizing than anything you will ever find at your local supermarket.
My dad, 55 years old, says growing up on a farm is an experience that taught him the value of family and hard work. Since he recently retired from his job of 30 years, he now is able to more frequently help my grandparents on the farm.
“I took pesticide training and got my certification so I could effectively help with spraying the fruit trees on the farm during pre-harvest spray applications,” my dad said.
My grandparent’s story not only inspires me to be a better person, it makes me happy to simply be part of it. From an early age, I saw firsthand the care my grandma took into making her house always feel like home for my cousins and me. With a ride around the farm in his tractor or taking us out on his boat to go fishing in the evening, my grandpa taught us that the simple things always mean the most. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed and valued those moments.
Now that I am getting older, I see the way my family’s story has affected the person I am becoming. I want to build my life around the same values of hard work, kindness, family and of course—fresh fruit.
I take pride in the fact that my family owns a farm and I am grateful I got to experience a childhood full of time outdoors and in nature. I had an endless supply of fresh fruit as a child and I quickly learned the difference between store-bought and freshly grown produce.
My grandpa says the thing he enjoys most about farming is seeing the end result after hours of hard work.
“I just like farming,” he said. “I like planting a cherry or apple tree and watching them grow and turn into something good.”
I would recommend a visit north to the cherry capitol of the state at least once during late July to anyone with an appetite for cherries and to support local farming.