Cherryland Empire

Surrounded by rolling hills of cherry trees in bloom that look like cotton balls on sticks, it’s a scene straight from a mythical novel. The story wouldn’t be complete without a main character who’s built an empire there. Just like every good king – and local farmer and involved community leader – Terry Lautner knows that the best way to guarantee a promising future is to invest in the right land, resources and relationships today and to pray for a little luck along the way.

Terry and his son, Erich Lautner, farm 500 acres four miles outside of downtown Traverse City, the cherry capital of the world. With miles of beautiful sights, many tourists and sky high land prices, the Lautners remain relevant by being an integral piece of their booming community.

The Right Land

Terry grew up dairying with his dad down the road from where he is now, but bought his own property two years after he married his wife, Cathy. A local doctor put 50 acres up for sale and Terry wanted it, but he also wanted the 36 acres across the road that he knew the same doctor owned but didn’t include in the sale.

“I always looked at the land as a kid on the school bus when I was driving by here and thought that that would be a nice place to farm,” Terry said about the 36 acres across the road. “That wasn’t for sale at the time, but I negotiated to get that in with the 50 acres and gave him a little bit more money and I got that too.”

As if farming the land that you dreamed about as a kid wasn’t cool enough, Terry and Erich have continued to grow their land mass through strategic investments and a little bit of luck. In 1996, Terry purchased another 80-acre piece of land across the road as part of a “fluky deal.” He had never met the person who owned the land, but he cold called the landowner and asked if they’d be willing to sell.

“It turned out that the week before I called her, she talked to a realtor out here,” Terry said. “It was a fluke deal because if I hadn’t called her then, the realtor would have got the listing and they would have bought the property themselves. They ended up selling it to me.”

Today, Terry and Erich are the fourth largest landowners in Leelanau County’s Elmwood Township and the only dairy farm in the area. Despite having neighbors on one side of their main farm, “they want this to be a farm,” Terry said. “If I wanted to build a subdivision on this old place, they’d all have a cow.” And that comes down to having the right relationships.

The Right Relationships

As longtime locals with generations of their families living and growing up in the area, Terry and Erich are dedicated to giving back to their community while making sure their operation stays relevant in the booming tourist town.

“I’m a township trustee and the only one on the township board in farm country or with any land to speak of, so I try and protect the farmer,” Terry said. “I have to have a voice in there to let them know what our thoughts are too in order to protect the property owners. That’s why I originally ran for the seat.”

Being involved in the legislation and decision-making within the township allows Terry to ensure that his farming peers and himself are represented fairly. He is also a Cherryland Electric Cooperative Board Trustee and Chairman of Wolverine Power Cooperative for similar reasons.

“Electricity is huge for us. Our cows need to drink water all the time,” Terry said. “In the summer, cherry farmers have to use water to cool their cherries and they have to use water to spray their cherries. We need a reliable electric system and I’m pretty proud of what we have at Cherryland.” In Erich’s words, “We want reliable electricity at the cheapest cost possible and being on the board is one way to protect it.”

Their shared responsibility and forward-thinking attitude doesn’t end there though. Along with his full-time job as a journeyman electrician, Erich is an active member of the Army Reserves and the Lautners will always go out of the way to help a neighbor in need.

“If your neighbor needs help, you help them out. They’ll return the favor someday,” Erich said. “We haul quite a bit of grain out of Leelanau County for other people. Not to make a living any more or less, just to help them out. If you make a buck, great. If you break even, you’re doing good.”

With their hectic schedules representing the rural voice in a variety of leadership positions, Terry and Erich rarely get a break. “It’s a lot of coordinating with me and him,” Erich said. “If he has to be in Cadillac for a meeting, leaving at 8 in the morning. I make sure that we are out here at 3:30 or 3:45 milking.”

Terry and Erich standing in their parlor. Part of Cherryland Empire.
The Lautner’s parlor was constructed summer of 2020 by a neighbor who used to milk cows. It was a major upgrade for Terry and Erich who were milking in a double-four before constructing the double-eight.

The Right Resources

The Lautners milk 65 Brown Swiss and Holstein cows in a newly built double-8 parlor. “I like the Brown Swiss cows,” Terry said. “They’re not as profitable as Holsteins, but I was never going to make a lot of money anyways.” Terry first became acquainted with the breed while attending Michigan State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree in dairy science.

“In college we went out to Iowa and toured farms on our senior trip and we visited a Brown Swiss farm out there with really good Brown Swiss cows,” Terry said. “Those things were just some of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen.”

While Erich agrees that they’re beautiful, he emphasizes that they’re also obstinate with no concept of personal space. Yet, he is quick to add that his future goals after he takes over the farm is to “slowly increase in size,” but Terry is just as quick to add, “not too many though!”

The flexibility they have with their current herd of 65 cows is something that they don’t take for granted because along with producing milk, they also recently began farming 10 acres of cherries. “The longer I raise cherries, the more I like dairy,” Terry said.

“You’re on cherry’s time when it’s cherries’ time. Whereas, when you’re milking cows, you’re on your own time,” Erich said. “When trees need to be sprayed, they have to be sprayed right away. When fruit’s ready to come off, it has to be off right away. There’s no waiting a couple of days because that can be the difference between a high grade and a low-grade crop, which means 10 cents a pound or 20 cents a pound difference.”

Terry added that “cherries are pretty stressful, but there’s no better place to be in Leelanau County than standing at a cooling pad, raking your hands through cold cherries and plopping the biggest one out and putting it in your mouth. That’s the best place to be during the summer in the county.”

The high stress crop adds variety to the Lautner farm and despite the high stakes and pressure, the recent venture is all for good reason.

“I’m on the Cherryland Electric Co-Op board and I live in the cherry capital of the world. I felt a little obligated to grow cherries!” Terry said, speaking about how he got started raising cherries. “I also figured that when I get closer to retirement, I could have something to rely on besides milking cows that wouldn’t require me to work every day of the year.”

While cherries are stressful during the spring and summer months, they’re relatively maintenance free over the winter and fulfills Terry’s long-term goals.

“I love farming and I want to do it as long as I can,” Terry said. “I have a passion for farming, just like I have a passion for electric co-ops. The farm community is the best people in the world and you can see that all over the country. You don’t find that just anywhere. I thank God every day that I’m able to farm.”

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of the Milk MessengerSubscribe »