Little Cherries on the Prairie keep life in the pits

On the Farm: Becoming orchardists was natural move for family, who say it’s always been in their blood to grow fruit

BENTLEY, Alta. — Becoming an orchardist was natural for Jennifer Johnson.

“It’s always been in my blood to grow fruit,” she says.

Johnson recalls happy times picking crisp apples from the tree in the backyard on her parent’s grain farm at Carbon, Alta. And she fondly recalls a vacation in British Columbia where the whole family picked sweet juicy cherries right from the branches.

“That was one of the best experiences I ever had.”

Johnson says her husband, Dwayne, an agronomist with Ag Masters in nearby Benalto, loves the orchard. He was also raised on a grain farm, at Naicam, Sask., and appreciated the apples, raspberries and strawberries his mother grew there.

The couple bought this quarter section in 2003. While the existing home was built in 1997, a majestic old red barn and some weathered outbuildings sit further back on the property, a reminder of former owners who operated a mixed farm.

The Johnson planted their first fruit trees in 2006. The orchard has gradually expanded to cover six acres. It consists primarily of cherries, but there are also saskatoons, raspberries, strawberries, pears, plums, apples, and haskap, also known as honeyberry.

“This is as big as we’re going to get,” Johnson says.

Her brother, a grain farmer in the area, rents the remainder of the land.

After researching cherry varieties and attending workshops through the University of Saskatchewan, the Johnsons chose to plant the Romance series: Cupid, Valentine, Romeo, Juliet and Crimson Passion. These sour cherries were developed over a 50-year period at the U of S. They have a combined hardiness, dwarf stature and good quality end product fruit.

“Our favourite is the Crimson,” says Johnson.

It took months to decide on an appropriate name for the orchard. Suggestions were written on paper taped to the dining room wall and were rolled around in their minds and off their tongues. Nothing worked.

“Then one day on a whim Dwayne just blurted out ‘Little Cherries On The Prairie,’” says Johnson. “And it fit.”

Johnson and the couple’s four children, three sons followed by a daughter, from ages 20 down to 13, handle the day-to-day maintenance of the orchard. That’s beginning to change. The oldest enters his second year of college this fall in B.C. Dwayne lends a hand when he’s home.

Until the fruit is ready to harvest, weeding and watering is priority.

“It’s rare for the weeds to go to seed,” says Johnson.

She said that after homeschooling her children in the morning, the children spend about a half-hour each day on orchard chores. During harvest, the workload increases to a couple hours each per day.

Fruit is handpicked.

Johnson said she and Dwayne want their children to have a good work ethic, “but we don’t overwork them. We don’t want them to become bitter and hate the farm.”

The flexibility of homeschooling has allowed the kids to attend production seminars put on through Alberta Agriculture.

“The industry is so welcoming to the kids,” says Johnson. “After all, they’re the next generation of producers.”

The family opened the orchard to U-pick customers this year. Little Cherries On The Prairie also sells at farmgate, farmers’ market, and through social media.

The versatile cherries are made into jams, jellies, sauces, syrups, cherry catsup, and barbecue sauce. Johnson, who does the canning and preserving, also incorporates fruits from the orchard into baking for her family. And they go through gallons of cherry juice. It’s also popular with customers.

“Cherry juice is one of our best sellers,” she says.

It’s produced with a household-size cherry pitter and a commercial cold press. The Johnsons are searching for a larger machine that will speed up production.

Last year the family replaced old haskap berry bushes with 180 new variety plants.

“Next year we’re hoping to get enough for ourselves and maybe some for production,” Johnson says.

“We had a love-hate relationship with the old haskap variety. The jam was our best seller at the farmers’ market. But the berries were hard to pick.”

The haskap flavour is a cross between blueberry, raspberry and saskatoon.

The Johnsons have three pear trees, each a different variety, but so far prefer the Early Gold, which ripens in mid-August.

With 2018 being a dry year, the cherry crop produced just 10 percent of last year’s bumper crop.

“We had more demand than product,” says Johnson.

In the recent past, the orchard suffered hail damage three years in a row.

“Last year we were hailed out 100 percent. It was only pea size but it came in sideways and just sheared everything off.”

The mess contained a message for the kids. Johnson says

“We tell them there’s always going to be rough stuff in life but learn how to make the best of it.”

She says even when last year’s cherry crop was ruined, the kids found the fun.

“What boy doesn’t want to throw a cherry and have it splatter on his brother?”

The rewards and challenges of fruit farming inspired Johnson to write a kids’ book based on her family’s experiences.

The book called Cherries – Just Right, portrays the typical growing cycle and seasons of sour cherries. Johnson is contemplating a second children’s book inspired from her daily interactions hand raising Bobbie, an orphaned bison calf from a nearby ranch.

Johnson is optimistic about the future of Little Cherries On The Prairie. But the real payoff, she says, is “working together as a family” and hearing her children say, “These are our roots, Mom.”

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