Apr 30, 2015
Joe Klein: Michigan Fruit Man of the Year

Joe Klein is a lucky man.

“I feel so blessed that I live where I live, that I do what I do and that I know the people and work with the people in this industry,” he said. “I don’t know how anybody could top that.”

He made those remarks after being named 2015 Michigan Fruit Man of the Year by the Michigan Pomesters. He said he was honored to receive an award from the group, which he helped to create.

“There are a lot of good young growers in the Pomesters today, doing some great things for the Michigan industry,” Klein said.

The award is one of many milestones in the career of Klein, now 69. During the presentation, his son, Joe Klein Jr., recited some of his father’s achievements: Klein has been a member of, among other groups, Michigan Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Association of West Michigan, the Michigan State Horticultural Society (he was given the society’s Distinguished Service Award in 2004) and the Great Lakes EXPO board. He’s served on the board of Jack Brown Produce – an apple packer, shipper and exporter based in west Michigan – for more than 40 years, and is currently the treasurer and chairman.

As for his day job, Klein and Joe Jr. manage Royal J. Klein and Son near Sparta, Michigan, growing about 160 acres of apples.

Klein grew up on the family farm, which his father, Royal Klein, started in the 1940s. Royal, who died in 2008 at age 92, was active on the farm for a long, long time.

“I worked with my dad all my life, until he was 90,” Klein said. “Hopefully, I’ll work with my son the rest of my life. That’s something not many people in this country can do.”

There’s a possibility the family tradition might continue beyond Klein and his son. Joe Jr. has a 14-year-old son. You never know what he’ll want to do, but it would be great to see him join the farm someday, Klein said.

Back in the ’40s, Royal Klein and his brother, Ken, focused on apples and dairy. Ken moved on to other things, but Royal stuck with apples, continually replanting over the years.

“We had hundred-year-old trees on this farm when I was growing up,” Klein said. “We gradually replanted with newer varieties and shorter rootstocks. We’re still doing that today. You have to.”

For fun, Klein started planting sweet cherry trees in the late ’90s. He has 6 acres today, all sold from a farm stand near his house.

When Klein came back to the family farm in his 20s, he initially worked with his brother, Tim, but Tim eventually left for other endeavors. At one point, Klein was running three farms by himself, working day and night. Fortunately, his son, Joe Jr., called him one day in 1997 and asked if he could come home.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I could really use some help,’” Klein said.

The farm’s top variety is still Red Delicious, but other important varieties include Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp. They don’t grow as much Honeycrisp as Klein would like, but they “got on the bandwagon late” for that popular variety, he said.

The farm’s annual crop size varies from year to year, but Klein said they could house about 80,000 bushels of apples in the farm’s CA storage facilities. Jack Brown Produce packs all of their fresh apples, and some of their processing apples.

Klein’s harvest labor situation is changing, and not for the better. On top of his four full-time employees, he brings in 25 to 30 pickers for harvest. Just barely enough pickers showed up last year, and he was short in 2013. Like a lot of growers, he picked late that year.

Because of the shortage of good pickers, Klein is considering something he never would have taken seriously in the past: hiring H-2A workers. He knows a few growers who tried it last year and were very happy with the results, he said.

Despite labor and other challenges, Klein thinks the future of fruit growing in Michigan looks “very bright.” There are a lot of young growers and a lot of young trees. He said the state’s apple industry will probably move more toward the fresh market – where the money is – as time goes on, but processing will always be important.

“We’re fortunate to have the processors we have,” he said.

Matt Milkovich





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