The lower peninsula of Michigan looks like a mitten. Leelanau County, in the northwest corner, is called the "Little Finger" of the state. Separated from the heart of Michigan by Grand Traverse Bay, the peninsula is covered by rolling hills sliding down to numerous pristine lakes. It is a land away from the land.
Leelanau was visited by voyageurs in the seventeenth century since its shoreline paralleled their route along Lake Michigan. But the county really came to life in the mid-nineteenth century when its virgin pine forests attracted the attention of loggers. As the forests disappeared, visitors from Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis discovered a wonderful place to escape from the summer heat. Farmers also discovered that the glacier moraines and the mild winters were ideal for growing fruit trees.
Now, a century later, those two factors provide the backbone for the area's economy: tourists and cherries. Leelanau and other Michigan counties supply seventy percent of the nation's tart cherry crop. Thousands of tourists come up each year to visit, and many of them decide to stay as year-round or seasonal residents. Demand for land in the county has forced the price of land up and up. The cherry farmers, already subject to the vagaries of weather and market prices, become sorely tempted to sell their land and get out of the business of farming. The pressure on the farmer has been especially strong in the recent years when the price of cherries has remained low due to static demand and over-supply.
Suttons Bay is the largest town on the peninsula. Its Rotary Club is trying to help preserve the rural character of the county by assisting farmers in finding new markets for cherry products, developing more efficient methods for handling the fruit and increasing prices to the grower.
Working with the Cherry Marketing Institute the club hopes to establish a brand name for cherries similar to the Sunkist brand for citrus fruit and Chiquita for bananas. A brand name would help marketing efforts since a particularly tasty way to preserve cherries is to dry them resulting in a product similar to raisins. As a dried product, the cherries can be eaten as a snack, sprinkled on cereal, included in salads or used as a topping for ice cream. Dried cherries in a powdered form are an effective, and natural, flavor enhancer. And what could be a more delicious end to a fine dinner than a slice of cherry pie? Cherries, with important anti-oxident properties, are a healthy addition to any diet. Research is under way to document the substantial anecdotal evidence that cherries are one of nature's healthiest foods.
Ray Pleva, a well known butcher in the central Leelanau town of Cedar, has developed a delicious variant of hamburger meat he calls the Plevalean. He combines tart cherries with lean meat to create a zesty hamburger product already on school lunch menus in seventeen states. Pleva also adds his special cherry formulas to other meats such as bratwurst, sausage and Canadian bacon.
Another local business is involved with the Rotary Club in a project to improve the speed and accuracy of a cherry-pitting machine. A primary goal of the project is to get dried cherries into America's cereal boxes.
The Suttons Bay Rotary Club is interested in contacting a Rotarian in the medical profession to help them substantiate the medical claims and an advertising executive who could assist with an ad campaign. They would, of course, be pleased to receive any other information that would be helpful to their project. Interested Rotarians can contact us at BAI: P.O. Box 45, Suttons Bay, MI 49682, at phone number 1-800-970-8828 or by fax at 1-800-833-5127 or by e-mail to: email@example.com. On the internet, www.leelanau.com/cherries/ is the address of the Rotary Cherry Initiative.