HAYMARSH, N.S. - Red cherries hang like summer jewels in an orchard at Haymarsh, a peaceful valley settlement about 60 miles west of Bismarck where Ken and Mary Ann Duppong grow fruit amid their amber waves of grain.
The rows of cherry trees are wrapped in bright green netting that resembles gift-wrapping, and, in a way, this bountiful crop is a gift from Mother Nature. All the usual calamities of freeze, frost, hail and wind did not prevail this year, and soon the cherries will be ripe for the picking.
The netting is a chore to drape over tree rows that stretch far across the orchard. Without it, Mary Ann Duppong says, all their work is for the birds, which seem to twitter the news and display a voracious appetite for this sweet-tart fruit.
The Duppongs invite anyone interested to come out and pick and offer an unusual arrangement - half the cherries are free, if the pickers are willing to give the other half of their pickings to the Duppongs. If they'd rather keep it all, that's fine, too, but the cost is $1.50 a pound, says Mary Ann Duppong.
These cherries are the Carmine Jewel variety developed in Canada, and the Duppongs planted 285 of them four years ago, starting with tiny tender saplings that have quickly matured into the pride of the fruit plots west of their home.
They are a dwarf sour cherry that makes good eating fresh or made into pies, juice and jams.
"This is one of the largest-sized cherry varieties grown in North Dakota and I'm guessing we have one of the largest cherry plantings in the state. It's pure fun, just filling up your buckets," she says.
Besides cherries, you-pickers can sign up for black currants at $2 per pound. She says the currants are new for most people, but they are packed with more antioxidants than blueberries and cook up into wonderful jams and syrups.
"They're one of our family favorites," she says.
The "you-pick" idea is new this year for the Duppongs, who were among the first in western North Dakota to experiment with grape growing. That first grape planting in 2003 has been expanded every year to 2,000 grape vines and two dozen varieties draping across the hand-strung trellises, looking more like Napa Valley than Haymarsh Valley. The grapes are ready in the fall, when they sugar up, and aren't part of the "you-pick" program, though Duppong says people love the grape-picking experience and there're always grapes to share at the end of the harvest.
She said they learned from the annual grape harvest that many hands make work light and even the biggest crop finds its way into buckets much more quickly that way.
Duppong says anyone who wants to get on the list to you-pick cherries and black currants should give her a call at 226-0654. She'll keep a list and set up times and opportunities to come out, with an eye on the weather.
"The more hands picking, the more fun the job," she says.
Pickers are welcome to pack a picnic, stay awhile and enjoy the Haymarsh ambiance. All that's required to bring is buckets for picking and a waist belt from which to hang the bucket while picking.
They're also developing apples, raspberries and Japanese haskap berries, or honeyberries, another powerful health fruit that's being further developed into a plumper, sweeter berry for the northern Great Plains.
"It'll be like a North Dakota blueberry," Duppong says.
The fruit trees were a natural progression in Duppongs' dream of creating a place for sustainable agriculture on a small scale.
"When we started diversifying into fruit, it was at a time when prices were horrible for beef cattle. We had six children, and none of them wanted to come home to that," she said.
Three of their children studied horticulture and the grapes and now fruit, "is something to do on a farm without all that heavy equipment. They love the farm and they'd like to do something here," she said.
The fruit and grapes are hard work and the Duppongs rely on family as well as a revolving group of young people looking for an experience in faith, family and purpose to help them each season.
The seasons come and go and the fruit and the young workers turn over again, but the stock remains there, tended and nurtured in the Haymarsh Valley.
"We love being out there," Duppong says.