Nov 7, 2016Hort society leader to nurture industry growth
Mark Miezio went from designing highway projects across the country to becoming operations manager for a Michigan tree fruit production company. He adjusted seamlessly to the career change, and now finds himself in yet another leadership position.
Miezio, 40, is the incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS). Previously the lead civil engineer for Jacobs Engineering, Miezio has been the operations manager of Cherry Bay Orchards in Suttons Bay, Michigan, for more than eight years.
He has served as president of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Foundation board and the Leelanau County Horticultural Society.
A board member of Great Lakes Packing and Shoreline Fruit, Miezio also represents fruit growers as a board member of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. As MSHS president, he will succeed Kurt Dowd of Hartford, Michigan. Dowd works with Miezio as manager of a 400-acre tart cherry business purchased from the Dowd family by Cherry Bay Orchards in 2001.
Miezio grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois, attending school there before earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois- Chicago in 2000. He worked as a consulting civil engineer on several highway projects across the United States.
Miezio met his wife Emily Gregory when both were living in the Chicago area. It led to a conversation in 2006 about coming to work on the farm with Don and Bob Gregory, owners of Cherry Bay Orchards. Along the way, Miezio and Emily, who earned a master’s degree in nursing, attended Michigan State University (MSU), where Mark earned a master’s of business administration from the Eli Broad College of Business.
He joined Cherry Bay full time in 2009, after convincing the Gregorys he could fill the role.
“Their concern was here’s this city kid who’s never done it – can he get it and be successful? It fit both ways,” Miezio said. “Ag’s just a different animal,” he said. “It’s a culture, a lifestyle that’s not necessarily a 9 to 5 occupation. It consumes you. That was the concern going in. We said, ‘Let’s try it.’ If it isn’t going to work, we’ll know that. So far, it’s been working.
“We’re still transitioning at the farm, no doubt about it. While I am a piece of the puzzle, this farm has grown and thrived with two strong, committed owners in Don and Bob. Now, it’s almost to the point of it is somewhat taking two and a half to three people to keep the farm going and growing. I’m continuing to take on more of the day-to-day operations of the farm. That’s kind of where we’re headed.”
Miezio and his wife also are the busy parents of four children: Luella, 9; Samuel, 6; Amelia, 4; and Grace, nine months.
Cherry Bay has about 3,000 acres of fruit in production in northern Michigan, mostly tart cherries. There are 500 acres in the southwest part of the state.
“I’ve been given some opportunities – there’s no doubt,” Miezio said. “It’s one of those things to be in the industry, as close-knit as a lot of it is – whether you’re talking apples or cherries.”
Miezio said he’s taken the lead from “two role models and mentors who have taught me that it’s important to give back to the industry you’re involved in.”
He cited Don Gregory’s work on the cherry side, including his part in developing a second federal marketing order, and Bob Gregory’s involvement with MSHS and the Michigan Apple Committee.
“It takes a commitment of five or six meetings a year. There are days you are gone from the farm. It takes a lot of commitment from our personnel on the farm. Moving ahead, with the management team at the farm, we can for some time keep moving while one or two of us are not there that day.”
Miezio took part in a three-year leadership program for growers in northwest Michigan that led to a two- week trip to New Zealand.
“Coming out of that, there was a lot of opportunity to serve both locally within Leelanau County and the foundation board,” he said. “On the foundation board, I was president for a couple years.
A veteran grower here, Rick Sayler, had the vision and leadership to say we’re going to make Miezio president, and give me the opportunity and experience to see what it’s like running meetings. It was a nice gesture by Rick, who had been president, to give me an opportunity to take on a leadership role.”
Miezio described his initial involvement with MSHS as “very serendipitous,” after being asked by past president Mark Drake to serve on the board.
“That’s how I ended up really getting involved here for the first time five or six years ago,” Miezio said. “I was blown away by the commitment and dedication of the hort society, the legacy of the society and the financial impact it can make.”
Miezio serves on the MSHS research committee.
“It’s really powerful and impactful for me, seeing a lot of research proposals that are coming and help provide input at the grower level in terms of what researchers are thinking about and really make sure we fund research that does have an impact at the grower level.”
One of Miezio’s priorities as MSHS president is to help facilitate the transition from long-time executive director Allyn Anthony to Ben Smith, who will take over for Anthony at the end of 2017.
“It’s somewhat an end of an era, with Allyn Anthony, who’s been the face of the state hort society for many years, in transition.” Miezio said. “We want to honor Allyn for his years of dedication to the industry and the hort society and give Ben all of the support we can. That’s the biggest area I want to focus on.”
One of the biggest responsibilities for MSHS is its co-sponsorship, along with the Michigan Vegetable Council, of the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO.
“I am still amazed every year of what the staff is able to do to make it run smoothly,” Miezio said. “I’m amazed at the level of how wide a net the EXPO is able to draw from with people and growers, and the level of commitment from vendors year after year. The programming put in place at EXPO is extremely relevant to growers in the Midwest.”
Miezio would like to see a more efficient way to share the information that comes out of the EXPO.
“Sometimes you hear about something in December, and when you’re in the orchard you want to remember something they were talking about, like irrigation, and be able to pull it up in the orchard or on your desk later. It’s an opportunity to gather that information one more time. There’s a benefit to that, especially for people who aren’t able to make it to EXPO.”
Miezio has high hopes for the Michigan fruit industry, recently bolstered by the formation of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission.
“It’s a gift,” he said. “We need to take care of it and nurture the relationship.”
He said the hiring of two new researchers by MSU has already led to them “being out in the orchards and (research) stations connecting with growers. When you see people out in the orchard helping growers who are having concerns or problems, that is what our industry is going to need as we go into the future.”
Miezio said the tart cherry industry faces a number of challenges, including marketing and sales.
“I see the next couple of years might be kind of difficult for the tart cherry industry,” he said. “We’ve had some really nice crop size the last few years. There are marketing challenges ahead of us. Imported cherries are being drawn to this country. It’s a reality our industry is having to face.”
Challenges also exist from price pressures arising from the need to market more apples that are being grown in high- density systems, he said.
“It sounds all doom and gloom, but it’s where were at as an industry,” he said. “We need to be ready to grow the best apples we can – to get the best packouts we can. We can’t just sit back and say ‘it’s a marketing problem.’ We need high- quality fruit. We can’t take our eye off producing the best fruit we can.”
Miezio sees young growers making inroads in the industry.
“There was a while when I first came into the industry that I wasn’t seeing a lot of young faces at EXPO, sitting on some of these different boards. It seems that in the past three to four years, there really has been a resurgence of people coming into the industry or coming back to the industry.
“I think that’s something that is going to benefit us,” he said. “People are excited about wanting to live and work in the tree fruit industry. It’s great to feel that positive energy. At the same time, people are coming back with different ideas. There’s going to be some transition.”
To accompany that transition, organizations that have traditionally supported the industry – such as the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, Cherry Marketing Institute and CherrCo will need to be preserved, he said. He included the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association, MSHS and the Michigan Apple Committee on his list of essential support groups.
“We at the growers’ level have had some of the best years financially because of the work of people within those organizations,” he said.
“We’re facing significant challenges – imports, SWD (spotted wing drosophila), extreme climatic events, labor – but really what we’ve seen are benefits that come from working together as an industry. I’m afraid that in my lifetime, I’m going to see some of those organizations thrown aside and lose support. It’s causing me a great amount of pause and a warning to growers that all grower decisions must be focused. To see those (organizations) go away or be torn apart is something we as growers need to think about. Is that really what we want to have happen?”
— Gary Pullano, associate editor