North Star Organics, a lovely certified organic cherry farm

First, great news: for our CSA members only, Locavorious will have certified organic, frozen tart cherries from North Star Organics in our share for the winter ’12-13!   Spring 2012 will not be recalled fondly by anyone who grows, eats, or loves Michigan cherries, apples and stone fruit.   It was pretty much a disaster for these crops in the state.  While listening to the dire weather reports of record warmth, then numerous hard freezes, I contacted Cheryl and Alan Kobernik of North Star and asked if they had preserved and saved any cherries from the previous (2011) harvest.  And they had some.  Not too many, but enough for Locavorious to have their delicious cherries in our frozen share again. 

In late June, I took my entire family to visit North Star Organics in Frankfort, Michigan, which Alan and Cheryl own and operate with their kids Emily and Eric.   On a 40 acre farm, they have 25 acres of cherry trees – sweet cherries, gold cherries and tart (sour) cherries.  They’ve owned the farm for 27 years, and have been certified organic for 14 years. 

In a typical year, a visit in late June or early July would have been rewarded with sweet cherry trees loaded with fruit, beckoning for u-pick.  North Star’s sweet cherries are sold fresh, primarily to u-pick visitors. 

For the tart cherries, harvest is done in a single weekend, when the cherries are perfectly ripe, with family and friends gathering for a long day of work, camaraderie and good eating.  The harvest goes like this: one person (usually Emily) drives a shaker alongside a tree, and fits the trunk into the arms of the shaker.  The team unrolls a large tarp attached to the shaker.  The shaker shakes the tree and the cherries fall onto the tarp, and then tumble onto a conveyer belt which takes them into tubs of cold water.  Tart cherries are quite perishable, and need to be dried or frozen quickly after harvest.  To keep their organic certification, they need pitting, freezing and drying facilities that are also certified organic. 

Cheryl says being organic means you have to share – share with the other creatures that live on the fruit.  She plucked a yellow cherry from a tree near the house and showed us a little critter that had burrowed in.  The good news is that the bug-inhabited fruit drops to the ground long before the other cherries are ready for harvesting.  To scare off hungry birds, the Koberniks clothes pin a shiny ribbon to each tree; yes, I believe she said on all 2600 trees!   

Being organic means using no chemical pesticides, no weed killers, and no chemicals to loosen fruit from the trees.  Cheryl said MSU thought they were crazy when they first started asking around about converting their cherry farm to organic.  To make it all happen, Alan spent time looking into the past, talking to farmers over the age of 80, and consulting farming manuals from before the 1960s. 

Unfortunately, this year was the worst crop lost North Star (and most of the state’s cherry farmers) has experienced.   Record warm temperatures in March caused the trees to form buds, and then a record number of hard freezes in April damaged those buds.  Bud blight damage from this past spring’s weird weather means no fruit this year, and unfortunately it also means no new wood on the trees.  Fruiting occurs on the new wood, so the crop is basically lost for two years.  When we visited this summer, several trees near the house and the top of the hill had a couple cherries each.  All the trees down along the lower elevation parts of the orchard had zero fruit on them.  In spite of having no fruit this year, and expecting nearly none in 2013, the Koberniks will still have to care for the trees and the land. 

This is impressive dedication to their labor of love for the trees, their business, and their customers.  We salute and support their efforts every time we take bite into one of their most delicious organic tart cherries.  Thank you, Cheryl, Alan, and family!

Locavorious was able to secure only enough tart cherries to provide them to CSA members. Please sign-up early to secure your share and to support the heroic efforts of our local famers such as Cheryl and Alan.

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