Sweet Finish: Area’s first fresh cherry packing line increases production, quality

A Traverse City farm is finding innovative ways to protect the profitability of local crops during uncertain times.

Last year, Wunsch Farms on Old Mission Peninsula purchased the area’s first fresh cherry packing line. The equipment cost half a million dollars, but according to Wunsch Farms’ CEO Isaiah Wunsch, it is well on its way to delivering a return on investment in more ways than one.

“This packing line can help keep cherry farming up here more viable during these down cycles in the processing market. So, in the short term, we’re able to help address a crisis that growers are facing,” said Wunsch, a fourth-generation cherry farmer. “This is the fourth consecutive year where growers have earned less than the cost of production for processing cherries.”

The line is capable of sorting and packing approximately 25,000 pounds of fresh cherries per day. Some of that load is grown on site at Wunsch Farm, but other cherries coming into the facility are from other local growers.

A year in, Wunsch says he has up to six local cherry farmers that now entrust Wunsch Farms to get their fresh cherries sorted, packaged, marketed, and delivered to market.

Wunsch Farms charges for the services, but Wunsch says local growers are still able to profit from those crops.
Packing fresh cherries itself is nothing new for Wunsch Farms. While a majority of Traverse City’s cherry crops go into the processing market – either dried, turned into juice concentrate, made into pie filling or sold as frozen fruit – Wunsch says his family has been doing a small amount of fresh cherry packing since his grandparents were in charge.

In the past, the fresh cherries accounted for just a small part of the operation. The rest of the crop was carted out of town to be processed. It wasn’t that fresh cherries weren’t popular. Rather, the issue was that sorting and packing cherries to be sold fresh was a highly inefficient practice.

“We used to do everything manually,” Wunsch said. “We needed about 25 people to make this facility run.”

Those 25 people would pore over recently picked cherries, discarding ones that were deemed not fit for market.
“It wasn’t appealing work [for our employees],” he said. “Picking cherries in the field is more enjoyable and more lucrative than working in a hot building.”

The fresh cherry side of things has been steadily ramping up for Wunsch Farm since the mid-90s. “We had a lot of interest in fresh cherries from throughout northern Michigan,” Wunsch said. “Customers wanted to scale up the fresh cherry deal faster than we could do it internally.”

Wunsch Farm took the opportunity as a chance to adapt and evolve.

Now, the entire process of picking and packing fresh cherries has been refined. Freshly picked cherries come in from outside and go into the cooler. Once chilled, the cherries can go onto the line, which runs them through a sanitizing process before sorting them onto single-file tracks and into little plastic cups. Next, the cherries pass through a digital imaging camera box, which takes 60 pictures of each individual cherry. This system is capable of automatically executing the entire sorting process that used to require 25 people.

“Defective cherries get filtered out,” Wunsch said. “Anything that has a physical blemish; that is undersized; that is under-color; or that has a short shelf life is discarded. The camera actually scans at infrared and near-infrared levels so that it can assign proxies for over-ripeness.”

It’s not a completely self-sufficient system. Employees still need to man the line to fill boxes with fresh cherries that the machine has deemed of acceptable quality. Wunsch also hired an undergraduate mechanical engineering student to run and optimize the software. By pulling samples and seeing how well they hold up in storage, it’s possible to perfect the system so that it does an even better job at sorting the cherries in the future.

Wunsch says the new cherry packing line has allowed him to send his employees back out into the fields where they’d rather be. All told, the line only requires about five people to run and delivers efficiency gains above the 25-person manual sorting process that Wunsch Farms used to use.

“It’s increased production, and I think it’s really increased the quality of the product as well,” Wunsch said.

Fresh cherries account for up to 70% of Wunsch Farms’ revenue. Wunsch says local growers using his packing line for fresh cherries are receiving about $1.20 per pound – nearly five times more the price of processed cherries. With the capacity to double current production rates on the existing cherry packing line – and the willingness to invest in a larger packing line and a second location, should demand warrant it – Wunsch hopes that more growers will move from processed to fresh cherries.

His goal is for at least 20 percent of the dark sweet cherries grown regionally to go to the fresh market rather than the processing market – many of them via the Wunsch Farms packing line.

“Our goal would be to scale up enough to provide growers in the region with a safety net,” Wunsch said. “But in the long term, assuming those processing markets do recover at some point, we’d be looking at just providing growers with a good secondary option.”