Monday, July 11, 2011

cherry picking, literally not figuratively

This past weekend, we did our annual trip to Rosenthal’s Orchards in Charlevoix to pick cherries. The orchard is 3 miles off the main road in beautiful rolling hills with farms and woodlands. It's a nice quiet setting. Yet the booming of the bird scare cannons adds to the ambience somehow.

They have large heritage trees, which also adds to the charm of the place. One tree we picked from is getting pretty old. Several limbs are missing, the bark is peeled off from the base to about 4’ up except for one narrow strip running up the tree. But it had the sweetest cherries of all the trees we picked from. Probably some kind of moral in that anecdote, but I’ll do like the math textbook authors and leave the completion of that idea as an exercise for the reader.

As I said, the trees there are large. I don't think they could shake these trees. I'm pretty sure they need to be picked by hand. Sometimes you need a ladder, which also adds to the fun. This year we were there the first day of picking so we did not need the ladder. We got the proverbial low hanging fruit. This year looks like a bumper crop. The cherries were in grape-like clusters.

We’ve been going to that orchard for 10 years or so. It makes a lovely trip and it’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours. One’s mind wanders while doing that kind of work. In addition to just taking in the nice feeling of a pleasant afternoon, I found calculus creeping into my mind. Here’s how calculus has ruined my life. I began wondering about dH/dC where H is the height of the branch and C is the number of cherries on the branch. I noticed that as I held a branch to pick it, if I were to let go of the branch after picking some cherries, the branch that was once in my reach was now out of my reach. Then I wondered if the orchard could model that for use in a pricing scheme. That way they’d get some revenue from the cherries that get picked but don’t make it into the bucket that gets weighed. Or would it be easier to weigh us before we pick and then after we’re done picking and charge $1.49 for that difference in weight as well? But I imagine the $1.49/lb already includes some loss to cherries falling into the pickers.

Fortunately this strange line of thinking lasted only until the next scare cannon blast brought me back to reality.

We traveled 100+ miles to enjoy the cherry picking adventure, and we’re not the only ones to travel some distance to take advantage of access to fresh fruit that we cannot grow up here. When we lived in Colorado’s Front Range, we did similar trips to the west slope for peaches and other fruit. Even when we lived in Kansas, we’d journey off to the nearest apple orchards. We’ve been part of the ag-based tourism economy for a long time.

Ag-based tourism includes farmer’s markets, fruit stands and U-Pick operations. People come to enjoy a morning or afternoon or evening of picking, then find they would like to go to dinner or at least stop somewhere for some kind of snack or drink. If they happen to see a unique shop, they may well stop there, too.

Some ag-tourism destinations capture that additional business by having a café on their grounds (A popular restaurant in Kansas City started as the café on the orchard grounds. I went to look it up and see that it closes its doors several years ago. Too bad.) Some farms spruce up the grounds and offer a look at how the operation works. Some vineyard/winery estates do that and make an especially fancy form of ag-based tourism (although it’s also fun to visit the straight working vineyard wineries that aren’t all fancified.). I have not looked, but there are bound to be some hops yards that are doing that with on-site brewpubs.

Some farms offer corn-mazes, pumpkin patch activities, hay rides and other on-farm activities as a way of generating some additional revenues or even just to show off the farm. Some businesses even serve the niche market for people for whom an idea of a vacation is paying to stay and do some work on a farm (the western guest ranch idea applied to farms). I have done no research on the number of such businesses and their success rate. I’ve heard of some successful ones, but also know of one in northern lower Michigan that apparently didn’t make it. The less elaborate versions of ag-based tourism are much safer bets.

Regardless of the form, ag-based tourism can be an important part of local economies and creation of the sense of place of an area.

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