By Scott Sullivan
Crane Orchards patriarch Robert Crane was inducted into the Michigan Farmers Hall of Fame Sept. 15 in Marshall.
“It takes a unique family,” state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Gordon Wenk wrote Crane Aug. 30, “ to meet the challenges of today’s food and agriculture industry.
“You have demonstrated significant contribution to the success of Michigan agriculture,” Wenk continued.
“I want to personally thank you for your leadership and commitment to preserving our state’s great agricultural heritage,” the director said.
Crane came home to the Fennville family farm bought by his parents fresh out of the Navy in 1950. Soon thereafter he met his future wife and business partner Lue Crane.
Robert farmed alongside his father, H.B. until the elder Crane’s death in 1968.
The Cranes farmed fruit — apples, pears, peaches, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb, pumpkins, plums and more — from the beginning, but had livestock as well. They also raised walnuts, although mostly for the grafting practice.
In the early 1900s there were shipping ports on the lakeshore. Fruit from Crane’s and other farms from what was dubbed The Peach Belt area were sent off to Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond via the Great Lakes.
Lue Crane was key to the men’s farming operations from the business and accounting side. She was one of the first in the area to work with Michigan State University on Telefarm, the school’s new accounting program geared towards farmers.
In 1967 when many family farms were facing bankruptcy and/or barely making ends meet, Bob and Lue Crane decided the key to their farm’s survival was to find ways to get their products directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man’s profit and producers’ loss.
Lue started selling fruit by way of baskets she put together with care in her kitchen. The Cranes bought an older cider press for almost nothing from a defunct ski lodge, which threw in an old donut machine with the deal.
Bob set up the press in part of the barn, and by fall 1968 Crane’s Cider Mill was in business, offering cider donuts to boot. Guests could bring jugs and get cider fresh from the press, plus bags of apples, peaches and pears when in season.
Lue, asked by customers if she would make them pies, began wondering if she opened a farm restaurant, would anyone come. Crane’s Pie Pantry was born in 1972, and customers have been coming ever since then.
By the ‘70s part of Crane Orchards had become a u-pick farm where guests could select exactly the fruit they wanted fresh off the trees. Bob and Lue were especially busy during the fall harvest seasons, but came home happy knowing they were doing all they could to keep their farm in the family.
Son Gary Crane and his wife Sandy came back to Fennville in the mid-1970s to join the businesses. So did son Robert Jr. a few years later. Oldest daughter Rebecca joined her mother at the pie pantry in 1982, as did second daughter Laura in 1988.
In the late ‘80s the Cranes decided to split the business into three parts: two farms, one for each son, then the restaurant and cider mill for their two daughters.
Robert Sr. has remained active in the community, serving as a lifelong Farm Bureau member and for many years on the Ganges Township planning commission. An aviation enthusiast, he earned a private pilot’s license at age 14 and continued to fly his single-engine, 4-seat Cessna airplane until he was 78.
He and Lue were knowledgeable antique collectors, with Bob specializing in World War II memorabilia. They were members of the local square dancing club and rarely missed a sporting event in which one of the 14 grandchildren participated. Today they have 20 great-grandchildren with another expected soon.
Lue passed away in 2015 but Bob Crane carries on, checking on the farm daily. He still walks a route around it and, no matter the weather, comments on what a lovely day it is.
He loves knowing he has grandchildren working in the business and that the Crane name and farming will carry on.