Apr 19, 2024
Lessons learned: A look at how everything farmers buy and sell is determined by others

I have been farming Michigan blueberries my entire life and my family has been farming them since 1956. I am the president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee and the manager for Kamphuis Farms in Holland, Michigan, where we farm more than 150 acres. That is who I am now. But my story started way before that.

When I was a child, my father, Steve Reenders, would let me visit the farm in the summer. At the time, his operation was growing, and they were farming more than 600 acres, running a retail farmers market and a processing line facility for wholesale. They also would run a small nursery of blueberry plants, to sell to other growers or nurseries for retail stores. I can remember one of the first jobs he would give me was to tablespoon fertilize the 1 gallon pots. All I had was a Folgers can and tablespoon.

Chad Reenders

I would walk every bay and give each small plant one tablespoon of fertilizer, which would take me a few days — as a young kid I was very distracted. Once the fertilizer was applied, my father would have me pull weeds from those same pots. This process occurred repeatedly all summer long.

My father taught me an important lesson with these tasks: A farmer’s job is never done; we must continue to feed and take care of our plants.

I graduated from Ferris State University in 2006 with an associate degree in automotive service technology. I had originally planned on being a full-time mechanic, but realized shortly after getting my degree that I missed the farm too much and wanted to work outside.

I worked at my father’s farm for more than 15 years, operating tractors and managing harvesters, picking schedules and shipping and receiving for the processing line. At this point in time, Reenders had turned into a 850-acre operation and I decided to step away and slow down as my family life had changed: I had a wife of 13 years and a six-year-old son. I decided to step
away.

I was hired by my brother-in-law to help manage a 150-acre blueberry farm with a packing facility. My life schedule was a lot more manageable. After more than 17 years in the industry, I have learned a lot. And a lot has changed during this time.

Farming, in general, is a very efficient business. It’s about reaching the highest production from your land, cost effectively and with a quality product. One of the hardest things for a farmer in the U.S. is making sure your input costs are less than your output.

Farming is a unique business because everything we buy and sell is not determined by us, but by everyone else. With fruits and vegetables, we are not choosing our prices — retailers, brokers and wholesalers choose. When you see high prices in your grocery stores, the farmer does not set that value.

For example, two of the biggest costs are crop management and harvesting. Crop management costs are a variety of inputs farmers use, such as fertilizer, pest management, weed management and quality control agents.

My grandfather taught me that no season is the same. As a young farmer I am starting to understand that. Between the temperatures, weather conditions and natural occurrences, the crop always reacts differently.

As farmers, we need to meet consumer standards. If we have a quality control issue, we have products we can use to either prevent it from happening or help manage it. That costs money. A lot of it.

My personal 10-acre farm runs me about $2,000 an acre to manage, which includes the fertilizers, sprays and irrigation. That is the annual cost, not the initial cost for equipment or planting. Depending on two things, production and value, I have easily lost money or made money year to year.

If in Ottawa County, our average is 5,500 pounds per acre and I sell that crop for fresh market sales, I can receive around $1 a pound. So I can bring in $5,500
per acre. This is good, considering my annual costs are only $2,000.

But some years, my crop is not good enough to sell as fresh and I have to sell it to processors. Then I would only get about 25 cents per pound, which is $1,375 an acre, and I would lose money. Every year is a mixture of the two markets. Again, sometimes you make money, sometimes you don’t.

One of the biggest things in agriculture is using technology to automate and help with crop management. Like I said earlier, farmers are naturally trying to be as efficient as possible when it comes to their business. Most automation is in harvesting or in packing facilities, such as automated sorters that remove defective fruit, or automated pint and box fillers. Labor is always expensive, so when farmers can implement this type of equipment, they can knock down input costs.

Farming is a lifestyle, not a job. I chose this industry. My family didn’t make me do it, I don’t feel like It’s a job I hate. I wake up in the morning excited to see what the harvest brings. I hope I pass that on to the next generation. I’ll be honest, it’s a tough sell. But we all must eat. If I don’t do it — I’m not sure who will.

Chad Reenders is the president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee and manager for Kamphuis Farms in Holland, Michigan. Reenders is also a member of the 2023 Class of Fruit + Vegetable 40 Under Forty winners.




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