Oct 7, 2016
True Blue Farms bouncing back from tornado damage

When a series of tornadoes with winds reaching in excess of 130 miles per hour ripped through southern and central Michigan in August, a blueberry operation near the tail end of harvest was caught in the path of destruction.

True Blue Farms near Grand Junction, Michigan, sustained extensive damage to its fresh packing facility and several vehicles, sparing 65 workers in a nearby processing unit. It left Shelly Hartmann, who co-owns the business with her husband, Dennis, feeling grateful that no one was hurt.

She credited a simple strategic decision, and the benefit of safety training required of all of her workers, for the good fortune.

“We were just all working in the (processing) plant,” she recalled. “It was a typical day, a little rainy, but nothing major. I was not really thinking about it too much.”

Photos: True Blue Farms
Photos: True Blue Farms

About a half hour before the brunt of the storm hit, management was considering a plan to work late Saturday, Aug. 20, to wrap up, giving workers Sunday off. It was decided to stick to the original schedule, returning Sunday to package the fresh fruit.

“We decided it was best to stay on schedule, and work (in the fresh facility) tomorrow,” Hartmann said. “We have an L-shaped facility. The shorter side is where the fresh is – that’s the part that got hit by the tornado. I call it divine intervention” that led to the decision to stay put.

She said text alerts were coming in by cellphone warning of the tornado’s presence in the area. A call was made to the plant to let workers know they should get into a storm shelter area, per previous training sessions.

“I went in back of the building to see if I could see anything, and I could not,” she said.

Hartmann took a camera out to get some footage of a thunderstorm with high winds to put on Facebook, when it suddenly turned into what she believed was an obvious tornado.

“I was out there with one of the girls from the office,” she said. “It happened so fast. It’s one of those things you can’t even think fast enough. Leaves started turning inside out. Wind started picking up. I could see the rotation, like a white fog, turning dark and dirty gray with debris, trees, limbs, leaves, building pieces, paper whipping around in the tornado.”

She fought the wind pressure to try to close the door behind her as workers gathered in a hallway and covered their heads. For 30 seconds they heard sounds of breaking glass and other loud noises.

“Then it was over and we came out,” she said. “Trees were down everywhere. Nobody could really leave to get out of there because there were trees blocking access out of the facility. We took a roll call and everybody was accounted for. No one was hurt.”

She said one of the lead workers came to her. “He said, ‘we lost fresh. Fresh is gone.’ It blew up like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

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Help started to arrive almost immediately, as more than 100 people showed up to help gather and re-stack field totes and lugs, supply food and water and get the site back in order in time for the next day.

“As we worked with the insurance adjuster to assess the damage, we were looking at the devastation to that building. Everybody was like, ‘Wow, we can’t believe that can happen.”’

The operation had already harvested fields in proximity to where the storm did the most damage. “There was not a real crop loss on that side,” she said, although berries already in the fresh side of the plant were lost.

The property was insured, and the Hartmanns were still determining future rebuilding plans in mid-September.

The storm, later confirmed as a tornado by the National Weather Service, hopped across the blueberry field and caused more damage in nearby communities.

The quick action to put things back in order was necessary because “we were still bringing in crops. By the end of the afternoon we started receiving fruit again on the processing side.”

She said while the damage “hampered our fresh program, we had another facility in which we could relocate our packing and storage. It hasn’t been easy, but we have been blessed because it could have been worse.”

Key to the effort was previous employee drills to prepare for such an emergency.

“Everybody listened and did what they were trained to do,” Hartmann said. “In a seasonal farming operation, worker safety, food safety and following a really good defense program is important. We conduct fire and tornado drills religiously, never thinking you would ever need to have used it.

“Everybody felt scared, of course. It was a very emotional experience – a life-changing event. Everybody felt comfortable about themselves. There was concern for their families and whether anyone else was affected, like kids at day care. All of these thoughts are going through your mind.”

Hartmann offered some heartfelt suggestions for other agriculture business operators who are subject to acts of nature.

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“My advice is to take everything serious – even fire and tornado drill training. It makes you realize that by taking a proactive approach to the workers, protecting them, that they know you care. Take things very seriously. If you get a message on your smartphone, react to it. So many people ignore the warnings. We took everything seriously and always take a proactive approach.

“You never plan on a situation like this to happen. By being proactive with training, you’re going to be blessed with the safety of the workers and everybody else.”

Having a good insurance plan also can have dividends, she said.

“You’re never thinking you will need it. You might have some type of an event once in a lifetime, maybe never. Here we are in little Grand Junction, Michigan. There was a little canopy right across the street that wasn’t touched.

There was an antenna with just four screws that it never got to. But there was a Ryder truck lifted up and dumped over on its side. Another little utility vehicle was thrown. It totaled vehicles in the parking lot.”

What comes next?

“You get past it and roll up your sleeves and start to assess,” she said. “When you first see it, you have one response. As you start to push up your sleeves and really analyze the magnitude and what you and the buildings went through, you start to see the seriousness. It was kind of a blessing. It could have been worse. Things that happen are so unexplainable when you deal with Mother Nature.”

She praised the efforts of volunteers and her own workers who showed up to work without compensation to help restore order.

“Farmers in general are good people. They were stopping their lives to help us, sending emails and asking how they could help out. It’s the kindness and generosity of people that I will never forget.”

True Blue Farms posted a thank-you video on its Facebook page, and plans other social media coverage of the farm’s recovery.

Workers will wear “I Survived the True Blue Farms Tornado of 2016” T-shirts provided by the Hartmanns as a reminder of the challenges that were met and overcome.

— Gary Pullano, associate editor


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Sparta, MI 49345
616.887.9008
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