In the early 1930's, a young man named Neil Altonen came to Traverse City from the Sault St. Marie area to look for work. He found employment on the local orchards. Neil's family had emmigrated to this country from Finland. His sister was born during their boat ride to America. Neil, who was born in 1915, would eventually achieve local fame for his hockey playing with the Traverse City Penguins team. In 1937, he married Julia Kroupa.
By 1944, Neil and Julia had two children, Ann and John. Julia'a parents were fruit growers on Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse county and taught Neil the basics of farm operations. At this time, the couple decided to start their own farm. They purchased 170 acres on 3 Mile Road, near Traverse City, and began to grow cherries. They also tried their hands with cattle, pigs and chickens. There were some difficult times in the beginning because the farm had no electricity and used a cistern for water supply. This meant no indoor plumbing. Yes, this was the day of the outhouse. The family owned a rather skittish horse named Lady, who was given to cantering off at the slightest noise. This made for many interesting, and unexpected, horse rides!
The Big Move
In 1956, the Altonen's sold the 3 Mile Road property and purchased a 120 acre farm on U.S. 31, just south of Elk Rapids. They continued to grow their sweet and tart cherries and began to cultivate apples and pears. Neil's son John married Sandy Roe in December of 1963. Together, they had four sons; Tony, Gene, Brian and Jason. When their children were young, John and Sandy decided to join his parents in operating the farm.
In 1970, it was time for the family to expand the farm. An additional 150 acres was purchased just north of Elk Rapids on U.S. 31. On this farm the fruit grown includes sweet & tart cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and nectarines; sweet corn is the vegetable of choice here.
The Next Generation
In 1978 the Altonen's expanded their properties once again. Another 325 acres was bought on Farrell road in Eastport. Here they grow cherries, peaches and nectarines. The deer population grows quite well here, too. For a complete list of the produce being grown today, check out the fruit pages.
In 1980, Neil and Julia decided it was time to completely hand over the farming operations to John and Sandy. They still run the farms today, along with sons Brian and Jason. In 1993, Julia passed away, as did Neil in 2001. Their legacy will live on through two children, 4 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, along with hundreds of acres of fruit trees.
Three farms and two farm markets make up Altonen Orchards today, totaling around 600 acres. Approximately half of that is actually farmed. Altonen Orchards is a special place, located in beautiful northwestern Michigan. From the very beginning, Altonen Orchards was a family owned and operated business. John, Sandy, Brian, and Jason work very hard throughout the year doing everything necessary to maintain and operate the farm. They have approximately 30 employees who have been with the farm for over 10 years. The families of those employees also work on the Altonen farms. The Altonen family and all of their employees take their work very much to heart, stressing quality as the byword on the farms. They all truly care about the business of farming the yield from these lands. The combination of family history, experience, and love of the farm are evident in every product. Take some time this year to come visit the Altonen Family Orchards, and get a true "taste" of northern Michigan.