Cherry orchard reverts to Plan B after brutal winter

Gloria Hafemeister
Luke Steffen stands in the cherry orchard on his parents fruit farm at Fort Atkinson, thankful that the family still can offer blueberries for sale.  They are also providing cherries for customers as always but they are not grown on the Steffen’s farm because of last winter’s freezing.

FORT ATKINSON – Dairy and grain farmers are not the only ones struggling this year.  The sub-zero temperatures of last January have killed almost all of the cherry trees at Steffen Cherry Orchard in Fort Atkinson, forcing the family to bring in cherries grown in Michigan to supply their customer needs until the next trees, planted a couple of years ago, are ready to produce.

The family does have an acre of blueberries for their customers, however. In their experience, blueberries seem to survive the winter well.  So did the 150 apple trees on the farm.

Steffen Cherry Orchard was started by Luke Steffen’s parents in 1981 when his dad Jaime planted 400 cherry trees. It eventually grew to about 2000 trees. It is not a full-time business for the family but they wanted to grow something unique on the family farm where his great grandfather started his dairy farm soon after he came to the U.S. from Switzerland.

Along with planting the many acres of cherry trees they also built a processing room that is abuzz most summers. After customers pick their cherries they are washed and run through the pitting machine.

“Cherries should be washed before eating them because they get bird droppings on them,” he said. “The water needs to be very cold, especially when putting them through the pitting machine, because it keeps the cherries firm.”

The pitting machine removes pits from a gallon of cherries in just 20 seconds.

This year to accommodate their customers they partnered with an orchard in Michigan to take orders for cherries. 

They do have another orchard started, however.

“From the time the trees are planted until they produce takes three to four years,” he says. “Two years ago we planted trees we ordered from Saskatchewan. They are a new variety which is why they survived last winter.”

He said the loss of the trees in their orchard was due to a combination of several nights of minus thirty-five degree temperatures with wind and some leaf spot that had weakened the trees.

“We also had some leaf spot that caused the leaves to turn brown and fall off early last fall. If the leaves fall from a tree early they are unprotected from winter because in a normal year the tree draws nutrients from the leaves before they turn color and fall,” he says.

“We also had a problem with Japanese beetles and that will weaken trees, too,” he added.

In the orchard, they train the trees to grow at an angle so the branches don’t break from the weight of the berries. He points out that these are just some of the acts of nature that can make it challenging to grow fruit trees.

“Every plant on this farm has its own trickle irrigation underground,” he says.  “We have miles of pipe buried in our orchard."

in the summer of 2012, Steffen said they went 60 days without rain and noted that the trees would have died then without that water.

"We can also fertilize through it," he said.

A group of 4-Hers picked some ripening blueberries while on a tour of the Steffen Cherry Orchard last week at Fort Atkinson.  The stop was a part of a careers tours featuring opportunities in agriculture.

The blueberries are a relatively newer venture for the family. They established the high bush plants eight years ago.

The cold weather last winter caused the blueberries to be a little under-foliated but there are still plenty of berries on each bush.

They offer several varieties of tart cherries, blueberries, honey, and baked treats made fresh every day.

Steffen recently hosted a tour of 4-Hers as a part of an agricultural careers tour in Dodge and Jefferson Counties.

He advised the youth, “If you are going to start any kind of business, think about the things that can go wrong and have a backup plan.”

He also pointed out that an orchard requires a big initial investment before any profits can be realized.

He said, “We are passionate about having fresh fruit and offering people the opportunity to pick their own healthy food.”