Nov 16, 2019
Brett Anderson to lead Michigan Hort Society

For more than a century, the Anderson family has grown apples in west Michigan, and in 2020, the farm’s current leader will serve as president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society.

Brett Anderson of AB Orchards will take a turn in leading the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS) that represents 1,600 growers in the Great Lakes State.

AB Orchards itself has more than 150 acres in the Sparta, Michigan, area, in addition to an orchard in neighboring Oceana County. The Anderson Farm settled in west Michigan in 1908, and Brett’s grandfather and great-uncles studied agriculture at Michigan State University (MSU) during the Great Depression.

“It was during the Depression era that they decided to focus mainly on tree fruits and get rid of the cows,” he said. Anderson Brothers Orchards first grew stone fruit in addition to apples, but when Brett’s father took over in the early 1980s, he focused the farm mostly on apples.

Today, Brett grows only apples. He has transitioned his family farm away from growing varieties meant for processing – Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Ida Red, Rome and Red Delicious.

In the late 1990s, with the Chinese dumping apple juice concentrate into the American market, Brett began tearing out old orchards and selling applewood to Grand Rapids-area restaurants as gourmet firewood. Those sales financed a college degree in history and political science. He then built the orchards back up while selling crop insurance – a sideline that he continues to work at today.

Brett Anderson looks at old newspaper clipping
Brett Anderson looks at an old newspaper clipping about Sparta, Michigan, apple growers. Empty bins wait to be filled with apples at A&B Orchards. His family has farmed in the area for more than a century. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman

Today, the farm grows Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji and EverCrisp – the MAIA 1 cultivar released by the Midwest Apple Improvement Association. Orchards of EverCrisp are still young, and Anderson said he is still learning about them from other growers, including departing MSHS President Chris Kropf.

“We’re really excited about it,” Anderson said. “We’re a little concerned at the beginning of the appearance of the apple, but the eating experience of it is so different, it’s so unique, that I think it’ll hold for itself.”

Young EverCrisp trees can produce apples with a “muddy” color, but Anderson said the color gets better with the age of the tree – and for premium eating apples like Honeycrisp, looks aren’t everything, anyway.

“The EverCrisp, you can put on your counter for literally months, and it will keep just phenomenally,” Anderson said.

The apple is just one example of how growers like Anderson are trying to improve their orchard operations.

“We’re trying to be forward thinkers, looking to the future as far as our planting systems, but also the varieties that we grow, trying to stay with the marketplace,” he said.

Apple advocacy

Anderson has been able to put his political science degree to work advocating for apple growers in Washington, D.C. Hot topics include lowering foreign tariffs and keeping labor costs down. If U.S. apple exports fall dramatically, the domestic market could flood with apples, lowering prices for all growers.

Even though Michigan and Eastern states sell most of their apples domestically, they would feel the Western states’ pain in such a scenario, he said.

“We have an advantage of location over them, but any downward pressure in the market doesn’t help,” he said.

At the same time, labor costs are “skyrocketing,” he said.

“We want to make sure that the adverse wage rate is kept in check,” said Anderson, who once was an intern for former congressman Vern Ehlers. “It’s been increasing at an exponential rate, much higher than the current wages are in our industry, or any industry for that matter.”

As an industry leader for 150 years, the MSHS is not without political clout, Anderson said. Politicians listen when the president or the society’s secretary picks up the phone on behalf of other growers.

“I definitely believe as an industry we need to have a unified voice,” he said.

Empty bins wait to be filled with apples at A&B Orchards
Empty bins wait to be filled with apples at A&B Orchards.

A bright future

Anderson is upbeat on what the following years will bring for Michigan growers.

“We have distinct geographic advantages,” he said, great infrastructure, and “great people to carry that through. We have the varieties that the market wants.”

MSHS is part of that. The group raises funds through hosting the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO’s trade show and education sessions, and funds some industry scholarships in addition to sponsoring research projects that line up with the growers’ needs.

“Research has always been our bread and butter,” Anderson said. “Everything I know, I’ve learned on the back of somebody else who’s done it or tried it.”

Anderson said he’s most excited about the re-invigoration of MSU’s Clarksville Research Center. When Anderson first came on board at the MSHS several years ago, there was a possibility the center would be closed, but with the establishment of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission in 2014, the facility is now running healthily.

His farm is also positioned well for the future.

AB Orchards, which for two generations has been run just by one Anderson, is set up for plenty of help in the future. Brett and his wife Traci have four boys: Logan, Lucas, Calvin and Spencer.

“The Anderson Brothers are back,” he said. “We love to be able to feed God’s people and supply our world.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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