Michigan blueberry growers persevere despite bleak economic future

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TWP PARK. – 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 Park Township. The cellar and the blueberry have roots that are decades old.

“All these Chilean and Peruvian farmers started planting a bunch of blueberries, and it really competed with the Michigan window. Before that, there wasn’t a lot of fruit in the market in October and November, so we had this excellent window for the end of the season berries to fill this market.

“But now that competition has driven prices down here – and farmers in Chile and Peru have a lot more turnover per year. They can just keep planting. “

Wassink was a student at MSU when prices started to drop. He changed his major to wine chemistry and went to a college focused on wine.

“At one point the prices were so low it wasn’t even worth the hassle of packing the blueberries,” he said. “We had to dump tons at a time, just composting it. I was putting it down one day and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to make wine out of it.’ And since then, it’s been going very well. “

Wine from Tanglewood Winery, a blueberry farm and wine production facility in Park Township.

So began Tanglewood Winery, a passionate project for Wassink and a diversification opportunity for the farm.

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

Another good example of diversification is Bowerman Blueberries, another Park Township farm. Not only has the farm opened a fully stocked agricultural store, but a restaurant in the city center is expected to launch in the coming months.

“One of the biggest things we’ve been facing in terms of challenges is rising rates and falling prices for blueberries,” said director Tom Parker. “Let’s say you own a restaurant or a store and the expenses go up – you just increase 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 because at the end of the day you made money for your family,” Parker said. “And now we are putting in more hours, more work and getting paid less. It is getting harder and harder to sustain life on the farm.”

The farm recently doubled the size of its popular farm store. The space now offers drive-through and walk-in kiosk service, additional parking, convenient seasonal shopping hours and a variety of local produce including baked goods, fresh produce and clothing.

“Our ultimate goal is to sell direct 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 come up with different recipes.

This is also true at Bowerman’s on Eighth, which will soon open in the old Alpenrose restaurant on Eighth Street.

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

For years, the green canopy with white lettering on Eighth Street was iconic.  Now it has been replaced with a blue awning that sports the Bowerman Blueberries logo.

Carol Yonker of KennyGarden Blueberry Farm, also in Park Township, said – for some blueberry growers – that diversification is not easy.

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

Yonker is 75 years old. Her husband is 80. She agrees that foreign competition is a big problem, as well as increasing spending.

“We outsource a lot of our work on the ground,” she said. “We used to pay 50 to 60 cents a pound to pick. Now we have to pay $ 1 a pound to pick our blueberries. others want to crash. But not anymore.”

Yonker said minimum wage requirements and government red tape have been tough on farming families.

“My husband’s father, who started the farm in 1949, used to bring in children to earn money to buy school clothes. behind these desks in Congress, they have no idea what it is. “

The couple own farmland within half a mile of West Ottawa High School. But even if they wanted to sell and quit 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 five or 10 acres, even if you want to switch to another use. We would sell this property for whatever we can get, but it’s not profitable for a blueberry farmer to buy our farm. beautiful land for someone who wants to develop it, but it takes time for that to happen. “

Tanglewood faces a similar challenge. Wassink’s father, Doug, was recently denied an application to rezone part of his blueberry plantation. He was hoping to sell the land for single family homes.

U-pick blueberries are common along the shores of the lake during the fall months, but blueberry growers are struggling to make ends meet.

“We have this land in a large area with a few roads running along it,” Wassink said. “One of the main trials for our industry has been the rise of this pest, the spotted wing drosophila. It appeared about eight years ago and made all blueberry growers 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 is really difficult to spray without the cross projections hitting pedestrians. This is 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.

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“We have a variety in the soil that nobody wants in the soil, and we really have to exploit that. It’s not a good scenario.”

But according to Park Township, the change could be considered “one-off 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 in West Olive. “I think they bring in over 400 million pounds of blueberries a year in the United States.”

And yet, in February, the United States’ International Trade Commission refused to continue an investigation into whether local blueberry growers are being seriously affected by the growing volume of imported berries.

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

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

“No matter the store, honestly just read where your fruit is coming from,” he said. “Whether it’s blueberries or cherries or whatever. If it’s from Peru or Mexico, it’s really not supporting any American farmer.”

And yet, despite the constant challenges, none of these farmers have thrown in the towel. It’s part of the nature of farming, Wassink said.

“We’re all trying to get by here.”

– Contact reporter Cassandra Lybrink at [email protected] Follow her on Instagram @BizHolland.



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