It’s a brilliant September day as I climb into Terry Stanton’s Jeep, vibrating outside the office. We are headed out to see the farmland that Terry and his family have recently protected through a purchase of development rights. Plastered on the side of the Jeep is a giant cherry graphic accompanied by the words “Cherry Russo.” I later learn that it is the name of a cherry concentrate that Terry is marketing. A retired ad executive turned farmer, Terry has been involved with cherry marketing efforts in the region for years—as was his father, Earl, before him.
I’m not quite sure why, but Terry, 73, drives just 25 mph along M-22, pulling over often to let cars pass. Along the way, I learned that Terry’s great grandparents homesteaded here and that he had spent summers working cherries on his relatives’ farms. He and his cousins lived in what was once the Omena Bar, now the tasting room of Leelanau Cellars. His grandfather was a Methodist minister who traveled between Northport and Suttons Bay. “I heard three sermons, every Sunday,” says Terry. “All of his sermons were parables and at the end he always would ask me what I got out of it.”
As we turn on to Overby Road, any doubts I had about the Jeep’s road worthiness are dispelled. The diesel engine roars as we climb the hill into Stanton Orchards. Passing row upon row of trees, Terry hangs a right and keeps climbing until the Jeep comes to rest on what feels like the top of the world. When the leaves fall, Terry says he can look down on Sugarloaf and stunning views of Lake Michigan. The best fruit sites also make some of the best home sites, notes Terry.
His father, Earl, found this spectacular site after scouring the county’s topographical maps. “Earl certainly chose that outstanding site extremely well,” says Jim Nugent, a fellow farmer, Conservancy Board member and retired Coordinator of the NW Michigan Horticultural Research Station. “It is one of the best fruit growing spots in the county.”
Earl bought the land in 1960. He had just retired from a successful marketing career at Libby Fruit Co. in Chicago. He had watched the shelf space for canned fruit dwindle and knew long before other farmers did that the cherry dessert market was in decline. That knowledge informed many of his decisions.
Before planting, Earl brought in bulldozers to level the land. When a nearby sawmill was about to close because it had no place to dispose of its sawdust, Earl had 10 truckloads a day hauled up Overby Road. He spread the sawdust, mixing it with nitrogen, to enrich the soil.
Earl thought that the future was in fresh cherries and traveled the country in search of promising varieties. Seven years later he was producing over 200 tons of cherries on 125 acres, about 20 percent of them in sweets. He and Terry began marketing the “table cherries” to retail outlets. They made headlines one year when they drove a truck full of sweet cherries down to Chicago, parked in front of the Wrigley Building and passed out free bags to office workers on their lunch breaks. “Both Earl and Terry were innovative thinkers,” says Jim Nugent, “I give them a lot of credit for trying new things.”
Fifty-some years later, Terry, who inherited the farm in 1979, is making certain that the site will always be available for growing fruit. This fall he and his family put 172.5 acres into a conservation easement. Terry’s son, Greg, now runs the farm, and 10 grandchildren enjoy helping out. Terry is convinced that the health benefits of cherries will propel the industry forward and is optimistic about the future of farming.
He says he had long followed the Leelanau Conservancy’s efforts to protect farmland. “My wishes are for preservation,” he says. “I think my kids would have done it but I had to do it to be sure it was done. We have all of our life trusts set up now, so now is the time. I’ve been a supporter of farmland preservation from the beginning and it’s always been my ambition to participate.”
Of the Stanton Farm project, Tom Nelson, the Conservancy’s Director of Farm Programs, says, “It’s never easy to describe what goes into the decision to preserve these superb working lands. The Stantons, like other families who partner with us, are motivated by smart business decision-making, a love of the land and creating a lasting legacy. It is certainly all of these things, but after nearly 10 years of working with these families, it’s very evident that there’s something deeper going on there that eludes definition.” He adds, “Maybe what it comes down to is an act of faith—faith in the future of this beautiful county and, just as much, in the hands and hearts of the generations to come. Whatever it is, it is clearly something very profound.” ~ Oct. 2012–Carolyn Faught