Cherry Lane Farms, a women-led business in Vineland, is Canada’s only producer of 100% pure and concentrated tart cherry juice

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As a teenager, Michelle Smith was still thinking about her next steps when she took a job at the retail store of a Vineland cherry farm.

She knew little about cherries, let alone farming, but thought it would give her time to consider career paths.

Sixteen years later, she’s still at the Victoria Avenue farm — and jokingly says she never quits — as the general manager of Cherry Lane Farms, Canada’s only producer of tart cherry juice from 100%.

Alongside President and COO Jennifer Smith (no relation), Cherry Lane is a 162-hectare women-owned and operated fruit farm, with Michelle and Jennifer at the helm.

“It’s exciting to be the only people who have concentrate in Canada, but it’s equally exciting to be the women who do it because we are in a world where agriculture is predominantly made up of men. said Michelle.

“It takes a lot of people by surprise…we have a full time male working there, other than that the store staff, everything is female.”

Founded in 1907, Cherry Lane has been in the Jennifer Smith family for 10 generations.

Originally, cherries were grown and processed for pie fillings, but as farms across Europe began growing their own cherry trees, it became increasingly difficult to compete for price.

“We were sending (cherries at) about 80 cents a pound, and that went down to 20 cents a pound,” Michelle said.

As Niagara growers began grubbing up their cherry trees, many in the mid-1990s, Cherry Lane decided to go in a different direction after researching and discovering the health benefits of cherry concentrate, including relief pain and arthritis, gout, joints and inflammation.

For the Smith family, said Jennifer — who, like Michelle, didn’t think farming would be her career as a young girl — it was “a bit scary” to make the transition, but also the necessary journey.

It’s been a slow adjustment, but now about 80% of our cherries are processed into cherry concentrate,” she said.

“Since we started making cherry concentrate, we’ve planted 1,500 to 3,000 cherry trees a year and just put them back in the ground.”

In the past five years alone, Cherry Lane has planted around 10,000 trees and harvests around 450,000 to 900,000 kilograms of cherries each year.

(Cherry Lane also grows peaches and pears that go straight to fresh markets.)

Apart from the pressing, the farm harvests and sorts the cherries on site. Once the concentrate is finished and returned to the farm in 50 gallon drums (approximately 190 liters), it is hand bottled at the Cherry Lane facility.

Explaining the process, Michelle said the cherries are mechanically harvested from water tanks. Once shaken from the trees, the cherries sit in water for 24 hours to remove the heat and harden them “essentially like a marble”.

Within days the cherries are shipped to be pressed and returned as a concentrate within a week.

“The longer they sit, the faster they lose quality,” she said.

When COVID-19 hit, Cherry Lane was sent in another direction, with the farm now operating an Airbnb on site — it has three homes on the property — and beginning the process of building a year-round market.

The Airbnb grew out of the extra space usually reserved for offshore workers that Cherry Lane brings in each summer from Jamaica — the farm started the Jamaican Offshore Work Program in 1966. During the pandemic, Michelle said, the farm didn’t was able to bring only 10 workers. in Canada, rather than 50.

Michelle and Jennifer also found themselves “constantly” on tractors, doing their part to keep up with the Cherries and keep the business going.

Over the past few years, Michelle and Jennifer have learned all that they can do on their own and how much they are capable of growing the business. And for someone like Michelle, who didn’t grow up on a farm, it’s been a long process, learning everything she can, however she can.

“I followed Jen pretty closely with everything she does. I probably bored her for five years,” Michelle said. “I didn’t know how to back a trailer, I drove a Bug. It wasn’t something I knew how to do; just slowly over time. It’s easy when you love something, want to learn.

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