King of Cherry Country: Shoreline Fruit

King of Cherry Country: Shoreline Fruit

By: Beth Milligan

Among crops in Northern Michigan, cherries reign supreme. While there are over 200 cherry farms in the five-county area, holding the keys to the agricultural kingdom is Shoreline Fruit, a cooperative between two area families – the Gregorys and the Veliquettes – that’s grown from a small start-up in the 1970s into the largest tart cherry operation in North America.

With over 6,000 acres of cherry trees, nearly 600 employees in peak season, an annual production output of 25 million pounds of cherries and a vertically integrated system of businesses – covering harvesting, processing, packing and shipping – Shoreline Fruit is a behemoth on the marketplace, both locally and nationally. Yet as Don Gregory, chairman of the board and one of the original founding members, explains, the company’s never lost touch with its family roots.

TCBN: The structure of Shoreline’s business operations is immense – and complex. Explain how you arrived at this cooperative organizational approach.

Don Gregory: There are a lot of legal advantages to being growers in a co-op. We’ve been farming together since the 1970s – the Gregorys are primarily in Leelanau, with Cherry Bay Orchards, and the Veliquettes cover Antrim and Grand Traverse counties, with Cherry Ke. Very early on, we worked together on processing our cherries. We kept expanding, and eventually added several different business structures. It made sense…to come together under Shoreline Fruit to collectively market our cherries.

TCBN: The 1970s were when mechanical trunk shakers first became popular. What was the industry like then, as you were first starting out?

Don Gregory: When we first started out, to be honest, we were silly college kids who didn’t know any better. We owned very little – we were leasing most of our land. We begged, borrowed and stole equipment, and then to pay for that equipment, we started harvesting 24 hours a day. That was unheard of in the industry at that time. We still continue that practice today; we’ve found some of the best fruit comes in the night or early morning hours.

TCBN: How much of your product currently goes out to the national marketplace versus the local marketplace?

Don Gregory: I’d estimate it’s about 95 percent national, 5 percent local.

TCBN: 2012 was a challenging year for cherry farmers in Michigan. How did the crop failure impact Shoreline, and what’s the prognosis for 2013?

Don Gregory: There’s no question it was a devastating year – not just crop-devastating, but financially devastating. Some farmers had other crops to get them through, and we had some stores of inventory, but frankly our mode of operation in 2012 was just to survive it. This year, though, we’re more optimistic. The cherries are looking good, and because of last year, the pipeline is virtually empty. There’s excitement to get cherries back on shelves at a price consumers can enjoy.

TCBN: What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the cherry industry in the four-plus decades you’ve worked in it?

Don Gregory: The biggest change has to be the way cherries are used. When we got started, dried cherries were an unknown product. Cherries were strictly used for desserts. Today, the dried and concentrate markets are the fastest-growing markets we have; fruit-filling and frozen markets are shrinking. The technology, of course, has also changed. It used to be you needed 200 workers to take care of 20 acres on a farm. Today, we have about 60 workers on our harvest crew working over 2,000 acres. That’s a major shift.

Farming is also a much tougher industry to enter these days, especially for young people. It’s capital-intensive….so much so that operations are forced to combine to survive. Farming’s not a get-rich-quick career, that’s for sure. It’s a lifestyle choice.

TCBN: Where is the future of Shoreline Fruit headed?

Don Gregory: We’re in that transition period where the next generation is coming in. Both of our families are lucky in that we have our children getting involved. One interesting challenge is that when you have an operation where the principals have invested their energies and financial assets, then get ready to retire, you have to figure how to extract that capital and turn it over to the next generation. So the next 10 years could be interesting. I think there will still be expansion, but in a different form than before, when the owners just kept investing. My prediction is you’ll see more partnerships – both in the marketplace, and in land acquisition.