Nov 10, 2020
Growers, industry contributors honored by United States Highbush Blueberry Council

Three growers were among a cadre of blueberry industry standouts honored during the United States Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) Virtual Conference & Expo, held Sept. 28-Oct. 1.

The USHBC, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, recognized 11 peer-nominated individuals whose work helped the blueberry industry grow over the two decades.

Casey Cronquist
Casey Cronquist

“While everyone has contributed in some way to growing the blueberry industry, our recipients deserve special recognition for their efforts over the last two decades,” USHBC President Kasey Cronquist said in a released statement. “Their work has made a lasting impact, well positioning our industry for continued improvement, collaboration, and success for the next 20 years and beyond.”

While the honorees included a variety of representatives involved in the industry, three growers in particular were mentioned.

Mike Makara, the former chairman of the British Columbia Blueberry Council, was honored in the category of Grower Innovation, Good Practices.

Mike Makara
Mike Makara.

He grew up on his family’s blueberry farm in British Columbia, according to USHBC. After selling the family farm in 1991 to a company in eastern Canada, Makara continued to work there, as manager of the ever-expanding operation, which eventually grew to 200 acres. During this time as manager, Makara became one of the founding shareholders of Berryhill Foods. After Berryhill Foods was sold, Makara started his own farm, which grew to 40 acres. Later, he became involved in consulting for other blueberry growers and the British Columbia Blueberries Council Research Committee. Makara eventually became chairman of BC Blueberries where he spearheaded research that introduced new technology and development to the blueberry industry. Makara also served as president of the North American Blueberry Committee for two years.

In receiving the award, Makara said, “I believe that the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council has achieved this 20-year key milestone as a result of the dedication and forward-thinking philosophy of its members, most of whom are still NABC growers and key participants. Since my first (North American Blueberry Council) NABC meeting in 1983, I’ve had the privilege to be mentored by many founding members and past presidents of the NABC. It was their welcoming philosophy of inclusivity, and my perception of their true and honest intent to share ideas that attracted me to this organization. It was always a pleasure to attend. … The importance of the USDA marketing order enabling health research and other initiatives to propel the USHBC to its well-recognized stature in the food industry in North America and the world should be greatly appreciated.”

John Shelford of Naturipe Farms was honored in the category of Frozen Blueberry Products.

Jim Shelford
Jim Shelford.

USHBC noted that Shelford has spent more than four decades in the blueberry business, joining Michigan Blueberry Growers (MBG) Association in 1976 as assistant manager. In 1983, he later became general manager and vice president of the association. In the mid-1980s, he led the change to packing and selling frozen blueberries in lieu of raw processing. He also led MBG into understanding the need for individually quick-frozen fruit (IQF) in the marketplace, and engaged MBG in IQF fruit processing as far back as 1990. But, USHBC noted, “what many would consider John’s most significant achievement in his tenure with MBG was his role in the formation of Naturipe Farms – then called Global Berry Farms.” Shelford led Naturipe’s growth and he also helped create a sister company that focused on frozen sales. Shelford continues as a strategic adviser to Naturipe and acts as a consultant in several other areas of the fruit industry – for example, serving the USHBC as an importer member, or its alternate, from its beginning until 2010. He continues to serve as a member of its Promotion Committee and a leader in its USDA relations committee.

“It has been an amazing journey since arriving in Michigan the third Monday in April in 1976,” Shelford said in a statement read at the ceremony. “At the time, the vast majority of consumers outside of the Northeast did not know (of), or had not ever tasted a blueberry, and the Nor’easters were fond of the wild blueberry. In those days, the fresh-market blueberry was the focus, and the blueberries directed to the processing channel for canning, blueberries in water, or syrup or pie filling, were lesser quality, frozen and primarily directed to the bakery channel. The retail frozen fruit shelf life, and shelf space, was not in existence. We were early in the channel with supply partnerships with Big Valley-brand frozen fruits, purchased by Dole. The antioxidant message changed the industry. I cannot believe how the antioxidant connection drove demand.”

Bryan Sakuma of Sakuma Brothers Holding Co. was honored in the Export and Global Community Relations category.

Bryan Sakuma
Bryan Sakuma.

Sakuma is a third-generation berry grower in Washington state, USHBC said. He began his career at Sakuma Brothers Farms in 1989 and was the lead nursery salesman for the Pacific Northwest for Norcal Nursery Inc. During the summer months, he was involved with his family harvest and nursery growing operations. After some time, he became president of Sakuma Brothers Processing where he managed both the fresh market and processing facilities. While serving as president of the company, Sakuma was involved in developing the frozen sales business in Japan. Since 2016, Sakuma has been the vice president of sales and marketing for Sakuma Brothers Holding Co. His primary focus is on frozen- and fresh-market sales. Sakuma is a long-standing member of USHBC and its board.

“My grandfather came over from Japan in the early 1900s, and they started growing strawberries in Brainbridge Island, which is a small island right outside of Seattle,” Sakuma said in accepting the honor. “They eventually moved north of Seattle, about 70 miles, to Skagit county, which is currently where Sakuma Brothers is located. We’re a diversified farm growing blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. We are comprised of members of both the third and fourth generation.

“We at Sakuma Brothers Farms, and all blueberry growers, appreciate all the work that has been done by Kasey Cronquist and his staff at the USHBC in helping the growers promote our exporting efforts to both far east and other locations throughout the world.”

Other honors

Other individuals honored by USHBC included:

Grower Innovation, Production: Rod Cook, Ag-View Consulting.

Grower Innovation, Sustainability: Tom Avinelis, Agriculture Capital.

Grower Innovation, Community Involvement and Outreach: Lorrie Merker, MBG Marketing.

Marketing and Promotions: Kirk McCreary, former chair of the USHBC Promotion Committee and former MBG Marketing CEO.

Food Manufacturing and Advances in Blueberry Products: Joe Meduri, Meduri World Delights.

Merchandising/Retail: Darrell Piliego, Publix Super Markets.

Foodservice: Andrew Hunter, Chef Andrew Culinary Development.

Genetic Research and Breeding with Nursery Propagation: David Brazelton, Fall Creek Nursery

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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