Michigan blueberry growers persevere despite bleak economic future | Agriculture

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Times are tough for Michigan blueberry growers, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to get better anytime soon.

“It all started about five years ago when the blueberry market really started to decline,” said Trevor Wassink, owner of Tanglewood Winery in Ottawa County’s Park Township. The cellar and the blueberry field have decades-old roots.

“All these Chilean and Peruvian farmers started planting a bunch of blueberries, and it really rivaled the Michigan window,” he continued. “Before that, there wasn’t a lot of fruit on the market in October and November, so we had this great window for late-season berries to fill that market. But now that competition has driven prices down here – and farmers in Chile and Peru are getting a lot more turnover per year. They can just keep planting.

Wassink was a student at Michigan State University when prices began to drop. He changed his major to wine chemistry and went to a wine-focused college.

“At one point the prices were so low that it wasn’t even worth packing the blueberries,” he said. “We had to throw away literal tons at a time, just composting them. I was throwing them one day and I was like, ‘You know what? I will make wine out of it. And since then everything has been fine. »

Thus began Tanglewood Winery, an exciting project for Wassink and an opportunity for diversification for the farm.

“We’ve doubled in size every year since we started,” he said. “We just snowballed here.”

Bowerman Blueberries, another Park Township farm, is another great example of diversification. Not only has the farm opened a fully stocked farm shop, but a downtown restaurant is expected to open in the coming months.

“One of the biggest things we’ve faced in terms of challenges is the rising rates and the falling price of blueberries,” said manager Tom Parker. “Let’s say you own a restaurant or a store and the expenses go up – you just raise your prices, but we don’t have that luxury.”

The Bowerman family has been growing blueberries in Holland since 1954.

“It used to be worth the hard work you put in because at the end of the day, you were making money for your family,” Parker said. “And now we’re doing more hours, more work and less pay. It is becoming more and more difficult to maintain life on the farm.

The farm recently doubled the size of its on-farm store. The space now offers drive-thru and walk-in window service, additional parking, convenient seasonal shopping hours, and a variety of local products, including baked goods, fresh produce, and snacks. clothes.

“Our ultimate goal is to sell directly to consumers,” Parker said. “By opening our store on the farm, we are able to serve more customers. We also use our blueberries in smoothies, donuts and pies. We try to offer different recipes.

This is also true at Bowerman’s on Eighth, soon to open in the former location of the Alpenrose restaurant in downtown Holland’s Eighth Street.

“That’s really what the restaurant is all about,” Parker said. “We’ll give you a sandwich with blueberry sauce on top, or show you another way to use blueberries, and it’s going to be fantastic. It’s another way to sell.

Carol Yonker of KennyGarden Blueberry Farm, also in Park Township, said — for some blueberry growers — diversification isn’t easy.

“The Bowermans are such wonderful people,” she said. “They’ve done a fabulous job of adding diversity, but not everyone can do it.”

Yonker is 75 years old. Her husband is 80. She agrees foreign competition is a big problem, as well as rising expenses.

“We outsource a lot of our field work,” she said. “Before, we paid 50 to 60 cents a pound for picking. Now we have to pay $1 a pound to pick our blueberries. The price for the fresh pack was $1.50, and my husband said that was almost too much because it made others want to plant. But not anymore.”

Yonker said minimum wage requirements and government red tape have been difficult for farm families.

“My husband’s father, who started the farm in 1949, used to bring the kids in and do picking to earn money for school clothes,” she says. “But you can’t do that anymore – you can’t have people under 16. The people who sit behind those desks in Congress, they have no idea what this is all about.”

The couple own farmland less than half a mile from West Ottawa High School. But even if they wanted to sell out and exit the blueberry industry, it’s not that simple.

“It’s our land, but we can’t do what we want with it,” Yonker said. “They won’t let us sell less than 5 or 10 acres, even if you want to switch to another use. We would sell this property for all we can get, but it’s not profitable for a blueberry grower to buy our farm. It’s wonderful ground for someone who wants to develop it, but it takes time for it to happen.

Tanglewood faces a similar challenge. Wassink’s father, Doug, was recently denied a request to rezone part of his blueberry farm. He hoped to sell the land to turn it into a single family home.

“We have this land in a large area with a few roads going through it,” Wassink said. “One of the major trials for our industry was the rise of this pest, the spotted wing drosophila. It happened about eight years ago and it forced all blueberry growers to spray their crops a little more. .

But spraying near roads is difficult, especially on windy days.

“This block of land has been in production for a long time,” Wassink said. “It’s really hard to spray without the cross spray hitting pedestrians. It’s a big, big problem. We lose money on this land every year, partly because of the need to restrict spraying and partly because the land has a variety of blueberries that are really pest friendly. We have a variety in the ground that nobody wants in the ground, and we really have to grow it. It’s not a good scenario.

But according to Park Township, the change could be considered “one-time zoning” and was not in line with the municipality’s master plan.

Meanwhile, imported blueberries continue to pour into grocery stores, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.

“Peru was the biggest influx of tonnage,” said Chad Reenders, manager of Reenders Blueberry Farms at West Olive. “I believe they bring over 400 million pounds of blueberries a year to the United States.”

And yet, in February, the U.S. International Trade Commission declined to pursue an investigation into whether local blueberry growers are being seriously harmed by the growing volume of imported berries.

“They said the damage wasn’t bad enough,” Reenders said. “It was a blow, but it was also a bit of a spark, because there are now a lot more people noticing what is happening to local blueberry growers. We are starting to see a trend of promoting American or Michigan blueberries. »

According to Reenders, the best thing the average person can do to help blueberry sales? Check the label.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter which store, just read where your fruit is from,” he said. “Whether it’s blueberries or cherries or whatever. If he’s from Peru or Mexico, he really doesn’t support any American farmer. »

And yet, despite the constant challenges, none of these farmers have given up. It’s part of the nature of farming, Wassink said: “We’re all trying to make it here.”

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