Apr 7, 2007
Kurt Weber Takes Helm at Michigan State Hort Society

The Michigan State Horticultural Society’s top position is changing hands once again. Kurt Weber will replace Mike Wittenbach as MSHS president in December, during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Kurt, 60, will serve a one-year term. He’s been with the hort society for about 30 years, the last few as a member of its board of directors. He’s also a past president of the EXPO’s board of directors. He’s always wanted to be a leader in his industry. He might’ve gotten that from his father, who was a lifelong member of the hort society.

“I thought I had something to offer,” he said. “I wanted to be an active participant and give back more to the industry than I take.”

As president, Kurt will preside over MSHS board meetings. He’ll also lobby lawmakers in Lansing, the state capital. The society is becoming more politically active, which is a good thing, he said. There are a lot of big issues fruit growers need to address.

Obviously, immigration reform is huge. Growers need some kind of guest-worker program and their migrant employees need a path to permanent citizenship. Hispanics are the industry’s only real source of labor, and the current immigration crackdown is cutting off that source, Kurt said.

“There’s a decrease in the amount of labor,” he said. “Everybody’s afraid.”

Kurt had an adequate labor force this year, but he’s not sure how much longer that will last. He hires up to 35 employees during harvest, and leaves a couple around to help him the rest of the year.

Abandoned orchards are another burning issue for Kurt. There are a lot of orchards in his township that are no longer in use but haven’t been destroyed. Abandoned orchards harbor pests, which spread to neighboring orchards that are still active, and generally make life more difficult for their owners. He wants strong enforcement of a law that forces property owners to take out their abandoned orchards or have them taken out by municipal governments, which would charge the owners for the work.

In early September, Kurt drove by an old tart cherry orchard on his property. The trees had borne fruit for more than 20 years, but were now torn from their roots and lying on their sides. Soon enough, they would be burned, the ground cleared, a cover crop planted, the ground fumigated and replanted with peach trees. That’s the way he deals with old orchards.

The tree fruit industry needs an infusion of new blood, Kurt said – too many young people leave the industry and never come back.

Kurt’s 26-year-old son, Kyle, is bucking that trend. Kyle is a sixth-generation farmer. He runs the family business with his father, and will probably take over the entire operation one day. Between the two of them, they own 200 acres of fruit and vegetables and rent another 100. Kurt oversees the fruit: 80 acres of apples, 40 acres of peaches and 40 acres of tart cherries. Kyle oversees the vegetables, primarily tomatoes, squash and eggplant.

Kurt was optimistic about this year’s apple crop. The last few years have been difficult for apples, thanks in part to codling moth, but cool weather this year gave good color to peach varieties like John Boy and the Stellar series and to apple varieties Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Ida Red, Empire and Jonathan. A full crop of apples for him is 35,000 bushels, Kurt said.

His fruit is sold both fresh and for processing, to companies like Birds Eye, Coloma Frozen Foods and Greg Orchards and Produce, a packinghouse in nearby Millburg. Kurt sent 9,000 bushels of fresh peaches to the packinghouse this year. Peaches are growing in popularity, he said.

“If we had the same peach varieties today as we did 15 years ago, we’d be out of business,” he said. “People like new varieties.”

The Weber family’s Michigan roots stretch back to the 1840s, when their ancestors emigrated from Germany and started farming. The house Kurt shares with his wife, Nancy, is 125 years old and used to belong to his great-grandfather. You could say farming is in his blood.

“I didn’t have a hard time deciding what I wanted to be,” he said.

Being a full-time farmer and president of the hort society might be a difficult balancing act, but Kyle will be able to step in and help out when needed, Kurt said.

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