February is National Cherry Month! This good-for-you, red fruit is largely produced in Door County Wisconsin. No fruit is more closely identified with Door County than the cherry; it’s delicate and unique, and too intoxicating to resist.

Cherry Production in Wisconsin

In 1896, horticulture professors Hatch & Goff began planting cherry trees on land stretching north of Sturgeon Bay. One by one, new orchards were planted father north on the Door Peninsula by people who believed in Door County’s fitness for growing fruit. By 1909, the bountiful cherry crops had received national attention and a boom in fruit growing began.

Many farms started planting hundreds of acres. Sturgeon Bay Orchard & Nursery Company was the first large cherry farm to call the area home. Years later, over 3,200 acres of cherries had been planted. By 1917, it took around 230 railroad cars to haul the harvest to markets.

With the prediction of a large cherry crop in 1919, pickers were recruited and brought in by train and steamboat. With the Fruit Growers Canning Company, larger amounts of cherries could be handled in a day. By the time cherries expanded to over 10,000 acres, it became a challenge to maintain a large enough workforce. The Peninsular Station started an active program with the UW-Agricultural Engineering Department to develop a mechanical cherry harvester.

Today, a mechanical cherry shaker can harvest 60-100 trees in an hour. After shaking, the cherries are immediately cooled in chilled water to preserve freshness. Some are sweetened or left unsweetened, and then frozen to preserve the outstanding quality of the Wisconsin red tart cherry.

Most cherries grown in Wisconsin are tart cherries, as they are hardy enough to survive cold Wisconsin winters. Tart cherries are seldom eaten fresh, but instead are used in pies and jams. When selecting cherries, look for those that are large, firm, and have even, deep-red coloring.

Health Benefits

The health benefits of tart cherries range from heart disease and cancer prevention to sleep enhancement, and much more. Ongoing research has shown that daily consumption of these tart cherries has the potential to reduce the pain associated with arthritis and gout. Not only that, but the significant levels of melatonin in these tart cherries improve sleeping, wakefulness during the daytime and function as an antioxidant. Cherries destroy free radicals in your body which cause cancer and other diseases. There is no better way to maintain a healthy lifestyle than the consumption of this tasty fruit.

Cherries are known for their heart-health benefits, specifically low calories, loads of fiber, vitamins, minerals and nutrients. This long-stemmed fruit delivers potassium, magnesium and calcium, too. Cherries are a high source of antioxidants that help combat stress, chronic diseases and premature aging. In addition, cherries effectively reduce inflammation and promote overall health.

Importance to Wisconsin

Door County’s cooler spring months and unique soil composition make it an ideal spot for growing cherries. Early farmers in the county observed this and developed some of the earliest and largest fruit orchards in the state. Some of the biggest names in the county – such as Seaquist, Lautenbach and Zettel – got their start with a modest grove of cherry trees, eventually making the words “Door County” synonymous with “cherries.”

Cherries not only played a big role in the economy of Door County, but they also expanded the local culture by attracting workers from afar, including Texas, Mexico, Jamaica and Haiti. The workers came during the busy harvest period and brought along their cooking and language to share with residents and workers.

Technological advances eventually made picking easier and there was no longer a need for an influx of workers, but memories of those early experiences still live on through stories and culture. Nowadays, visitors and locals love to make picking cherries an annual tradition at many of the local orchards that offer “pick your own” buckets.

Join in the celebration this month and participate in ways to incorporate more cherries in your life!