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They established Royal Farms as newlyweds, leasing their first orchard. Besides one terrifying blip in 2002, when a total lack of a crop nearly sunk them, they’ve grown the business each year by buying or leasing orchards. Today they lease more land than they own, farming land as far south as the Torch River Bridge and as far north as Ferry Road near Charlevoix.
Financing the farmland is one thing, marketing the fruit another. Sara knows quality from her days in the processing plant, but she’s realized that no longer can the fruit just speak for itself; to stay viable in a modern marketplace, they needed creative ways to get the most mileage out of their harvest. So she’s called on her merchandising skills and spokeswoman talents. Sara is fresh-faced, poised, genuine, just as you’d expect from a former National Cherry Queen, and a natural at spreading the gospel of the Balaton. Pat and Sara have 10 percent of their orchards in the trendy Balaton tart, a cherry they make into a deep-hued, antioxidant-rich super-juice they promote in the market and online. And Sara jokingly calls the market she’s created on U.S. 31—with its antique pie safes, red Radio Flyer wagons holding flower baskets, adorable smoothie stand and goldfish pond—the Hollywood version of the farm, especially when compared to the weathered red, bare-bones barn just a quarter-mile around the corner, where Pat and his crew park their equipment after a day out in a hot orchard.
But the marketing finesse has paid off. Today, a sun-soaked morning two weeks into sweet cherry harvest, the Royal Farms market is packed with tourists all clamoring for that certain rosy-cheeked feeling. Emma is running in the mushy, fresh tilled earth of the corn maze, shouting behind her that it feels like quicksand. A downstate couple, in lieu of a big faraway summer vacation, is riding motorcycles up the Michigan coast and picked Royal Farms as a pit stop for some simple, fruit-laden pleasures. Yesterday, says Sara, their pie sales broke an all-time record.
Since Pat is in the sunup-to-sundown schedule of harvest, the McGuires make sure their kids, Emma and Ryan, age four, see their dad when the shaking crew breaks for lunch. The chuck wagon is a Honda station wagon driven by Patrick’s mom, Martha McGuire, who brings a picnic of cucumber spears, dilled macaroni salad, chips and sandwich fixings to the barn. While everyone eats at the white picnic table, Sara takes a cell phone call from Eric Hahn at Cherry Capital Foods, a local foods distributor. She covers the mouthpiece: “He wants stem-on cherries, can we do it?”
Here in the North, we’re used buying sweet cherries without their stems, but Hahn has clients—big stores like Whole Foods in the Detroit and Chicago markets—who like the stems left on for a sexier presentation. And they’ll pay more for them. So even though it’s not convention, and they will have to rally a special crew to handpick that way, Sara and Pat agree.
Even though it’s time to get back to the business of harvest, and it’s been two days since Ryan had an afternoon nap, when he asks to stay with Dad and ride on his lap on the forklift, Sara and Pat agree.
The About Us page on royalfarmsinc.com tells the fairytale version of their lives, high school sweethearts who lived and farmed happily ever after. And Sara is the first to tell you that yes, that is marketing, but you can take it at face value.