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A "Cherry" Special Crop

What do apple trees, dynamite, and Wisconsin’s easternmost county have in common? They’re all behind Wisconsin’s famous cherry crop!


Most Wisconsinites know Door County is our cherry producing hub, but they are also the host of the 77th Alice in Dairyland Finals, taking place in May 2024. I will be visiting the county at least once a month for the next year, which will provide me the opportunity to learn so much about cherries and see the orchards in all seasons of the year! I recently found some surprising backstory to how those delicious fruits got their start in our state.


According to Wisconsin 101, a statewide, collaborative, public history project, Door County residents faced continuous struggles to grow typical cash crops due to the county’s rocky soil. Joseph Zettel, a Swiss immigrant settled there in 1855 and discovered success with apple trees. Green Bay and Lake Michigan largely insulate the county from late frosts and provide a more temperate climate, leading to plentiful apple crops. The shallow, rocky soil was even a benefit, providing drainage that significantly reduced root rot! Zettel’s farm was producing 3,000 bushels of apples per year by the 1890’s.


Attracted by this success, a fruit grower from southern Wisconsin, A.L. Hatch, and E.S. Goff, a UW horticulture professor, bought land and began experimenting with plums, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries. They saw great success with their cherries and other fruit growers soon flocked to the area.


Even though the soil was beneficial for the tree’s growth, planting proved difficult. This is where the dynamite comes in! According to Destination Door County, “. . . many farmers had to use dynamite to break up otherwise impenetrable bedrock.” Despite the hurdle, soon thousands of cherry trees were being planted each year. Growers started with roadside stands and U-Pick operations, opportunities still common today, but eventually received national attention and led to large-scale canning and commercial attraction for Door County. Around the 1950’s, Door County Cherries were at their peak. Seven hundred growers annually produced fifty million pounds of cherries, which was about 10% of the world’s cherries.


All of those cherries meant many hands were required for harvest. Destination Door County shares that Horseshoe Bay Farms operated “Cherry Camp” to teenagers. Horseshoe Bay Golf Club housed 100 local and out of state teens. In exchange for their room and board, campers were expected to pick 7.5 pails of cherries each day, but money was earned for any cherries beyond that. Prizes were awarded for best pickers of the day. Splashing around the Bay and exploring the Horseshoe Bay Cave were favorite free time activities.


The 1960s brought about the invention of mechanical cherry pickers, which shake the trees and catch the cherries that fall off. Today, these pickers can harvest over 10 trees a minute and Door County’s growers produce 700 million pounds of cherries each year.


On each of my upcoming visits to Door County over the next year, I look forward to continuing to learn more about Wisconsin’s cherry crop, the rest of the county’s agriculture, and the people and businesses that call Door County home.

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