Steve Lecklider wasn't always a farmer, he was a professional clarinet musician playing classical music in South Bend, Indiana. Now he runs Lehman's Orchard with his parents, both retired teachers. “We've all left the farm and then come back,” said Steve, the third generation in his family to run the orchard. Their farm in Niles, Michigan (Berrien County) grows generous apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, wine grapes, and tomatoes. His grandfather Ralph Lehman started the farm in 1929. Such a diverse farm in a four-season area requires a lot of juggling. “It's just like in music - you gotta see it all the way through,” said Steve. “You can't just show up at the practice and not the performance.”
Niles is located in the lower palm of hand-shaped Michigan along the St. Joseph River. In that region September was just as warm as August which meant the peaches stayed late and the apples were right on time.
FruitGuys central region customers will see some of Lehmans’ Honey Crisp, Gala, and Macoun apples in the coming weeks.
The Lehmans are known for their tart cherries and long-established You-Pick trade. They employ sustainable and organic orchard practices such as high-density tree planting, intercropping, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Planting dwarf trees close together conserves water and lets light reach other crops that are planted between the rows, like tomatoes growing among the peaches or strawberries tucked in with the grapes. Steve also places a reflective fabric under the trees during ripening which adds warmth and light and discourages certain pests. This one organic IPM method means pesticides don't need to be used.
In their dried fruit business, they pit their famous cherries on site and mix them with other regional fruits to create dried fruit mixes.
“Instead of using raisins we use cranberries, that's a mid-west thing,” said Steve. Their “Michigan Mix” of cranberries, unsulphered apples, pecans, and cherries is a big seller, as well as the “Apple-Crunch” and “Healthy Mix.”
We look forward to seasons of blossoms and berries, and baskets of peaches and pears. While farmer Steve may no longer have time to play, we can be content with some Brahms sonatas coming from the truck's radio.
- Heidi Lewis