Nov 18, 2015
Michigan hort society president a hands-on leader

Kurt Dowd has been around farms most of his life. So when it came time to transition the family’s historic operation near Hartford, Michigan, away from being family owned and operated, he found a way to remain involved.

Dowd, incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS), was retained as manager of the 400-acre tart cherry business when the family farm was purchased by Cherry Bay Orchards of Traverse City, Michigan, in 2001.

“This farm was established in 1844 by our family, and we’ve been farmers here for a long time,” Dowd said. “When we got out of the business, I went to work for Cherry Bay Orchards, which bought a number of our farms. Simultaneously, I went to work as an agent with Farm Bureau Insurance and I still do that today.”

Dowd grew up on the land where his residence now sits. He graduated from Michigan State University with a horticulture degree in 1989. That year, he married his wife, Joni, and they raised two children – Lauren, who graduates from the University of Michigan in December; and Conor, a student at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

“I worked all of my youth on the farm, left and went to school, and came back,” Dowd said. “I thought I’d be here forever, until we changed course and the family decided to close down and have an auction to get out of the farm enterprise.”

Don Gregory, who runs Cherry Bay Orchards with his brother Bob, purchased the business at auction, and Dowd expressed an interest in running the Dowd division of Cherry Bay.

“I had already gone to work with Farm Bureau a month before that,” he said. “I grew up in ag, I enjoyed it, and it was something I was very comfortable with.”

Dowd said that when his cousins departed the business, it left him as the only one of his generation to be part of the farm. He had been working with his father and two uncles at the time.

During Dowd’s involvement, the farm grew apples, peaches, plums, asparagus, cucumbers and tart cherries.

“We had grown strawberries and other things before that back in my youth,” he said. “We were out of the peach and plum business in the early 1990s.”

Being in an area in southwest Michigan “where we can grow everything here, except citrus and nut crops, it makes our spot kind of special.”

“We’ve had our challenges here,” Dowd said. “What I like about tart cherries for down in southwest Michigan, we’re the first to come to market, the first out with our crop, so it fills a nice little niche and gets things operating quicker than waiting for the fruit up north. We have an earlier window of opportunity.”

All of the product is shipped to Cherry Bay’s processing facility in Hart, Michigan.

Dowd uses a crew of three to five full-time workers during the season.

“We start operating down here in late March or early April and get the work done about Nov. 1, when we close it down for the winter,” Dowd said.

Harvest help is sent from northern Michigan, along with the equipment the Dowd operation requires.

Staying involved

In addition to his involvement with the hort society, Dowd has been active with the Michigan Cherry Committee and the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. His stint as a trustee on the Hartford Township board also involved work with the local planning commission and recreation council.

“So I do have a few meetings to go to every month, but I really enjoy it,” Dowd said.

He sees great value in the work of the 1,250-member horticultural society.

“What I enjoy about it is the networking that you do with what I call like-minded people,” he said. “We’re not on an island. We face the same problems and challenges. It’s interesting get to get together to talk about those problems and find solutions.”

He said MSHS interaction comes “from all over the state – it’s not only our perspectives from southwest Michigan, it’s also the west-central, northwest and the east side of the state – all of the growing regions that we have – and I really enjoy that.”

“There’s a lot of social opportunities there to learn new operations, new personalities, meet new people,” he said. “We’re not a huge group of growers anymore with consolidation, but I still don’t know them all and always meet new people.

“We have the opportunity to form an opinion and speak to people who can help you with a situation. We probably do a fair amount of lobbying, but it’s not a lobbying organization.”

Among the important MSHS tasks are to fund research projects and distribute scholarships to students who are coming back into the business.

“We have good contacts with university (MSU), and that’s important to get some situations addressed at the farm level,” Dowd said. “There is a wealth of knowledge and resources at the university. They’re going to pick a project to work on, so why can’t they use our suggestions?”

Labor availability is the biggest issue facing the industry, Dowd said.

“What impact (MSHS) and the university have is probably not that great – that is a political hot-button topic and I don’t see any solutions other than working with the H-2A guest-worker program. We would like to see that be more manageable, but that’s what we have right at the moment.”

Dowd said there are plenty of other concerns in the fruit production industry to keep growers and researchers engaged.

“We’re losing some of our tools all the time as far as insecticides, fungicides, pesticides. What’s going to replace them? There are challenges with new invasive pest species. How do we keep tools in our toolbox to combat the pressure that we get? Those are among the most challenging things we have.”

Dowd is familiar with the impact spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is having on blueberry growers, in particular, in his region of the state, and for later-season tart cherry producers.

“We don’t have SWD (in cherries) down here yet, because we mature that crop so early and get our harvest done before that population comes,” he said. “It hasn’t built enough to cause us a real problem – unlike our blueberry friends down here. (SWD has) changed the way they do business. Farther north, there are higher populations the later the harvest gets. It’s a real issue in the cherry industry.”

Dowd called the establishment of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission in 2014 “a real cooperative effort to get that thing together and give the industry a voice. It’s a major accomplishment and it keeps that tie with the industry and the university strong. It’s a cooperative relationship, not one sided, not one-way. It’s a real positive for growers, the university and its researchers.”

Great Lakes EXPO

Dowd looks forward to promoting another focus of MSHS – co-hosting, along with the Michigan Vegetable Council, the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO, held each December in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“It is a phenomenal program and show,” he said. “The educational sessions are relevant, which is so important. The show is the show. That is a social event. You get to touch base with friends and neighbors you haven’t seen, many who are growing in different parts of the state, region and country.

“There are speakers from other areas of the country,” he said. “It’s an avenue to get information out to the growers, and with the sponsorship and participation from vendors, you know we’re filling that place up and it’s really good to see. It’s a real positive.”

While not wanting to “pigeon-hole” himself into any particular pet projects as MSHS president, Dowd does have an appreciation for finding ways to pass on the farming heritage to future generations.

“How can the next generation afford to buy the farm is a real issue,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers on that. How an operation has set up a transition plan is absolutely unique to each operation. There’s not a schedule of how to do it and I’ve seen it done a lot of different ways. It’s important to keep the family operation strong. I don’t know that there’s any right answer to it.

“The way we did it was to get the support of a larger organization. When the family decision came time, I was the only one of my generation left. We were primarily apple growers at the time, and the apple industry had challenges they really didn’t sort out until the mid-2000s. It just didn’t make sense to commit the time and money to buy out a previous generation and think you would be ahead after five or 10 years. My biggest fear was five or 10 years down the road we would be in a more serious situation. It didn’t make sense to put the previous generation’s retirement at risk and force the issue.”

Dowd believes the decision to sell, “in hindsight, has worked out.”

“We’ve raised our children here. They were age 9 and 6 when we sold the farm. We stayed here, and it’s worked out very well. You couldn’t have written a better script.

“It’s a good atmosphere and we have had the ability to have our kids work around the farm and get raised around these people – ag families are a good way to raise your kids. Now we’ll see what’s going to happen in the next 20 years.”

Gary Pullano

 





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