Nov 6, 2012
Michigan hort society selects blueberry grower as 2013 president

Steve Hunt will be the next president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS).

When he starts next year, Hunt, a blueberry grower from South Haven, Mich., said he intends to support the goals the society was founded on: Promoting Michigan fruit and supporting research.

One key area of research for Hunt is how to fight the spotted wing drosophila (SWD), a new pest that has emerged as a major problem this season. As a small-fruit grower, Hunt has dealt with SWD firsthand.

“We’ve been trapping and spraying,” he said. “I don’t like to spray until I have a known target, but with SWD, you better be spraying every six to seven days. What I’ve read and seen this year, the number has increased dramatically.”

Hunt said the weather was a factor in the emergence of SWD this year.

“We started spraying for SWD in the middle of July,” he said. “We had a mild winter and they started showing up in traps.”

Hunt wants the researchers at Michigan State University to know that MSHS will support their research in taking on SWD and any other pests that arise.

“Research, research, research,” Hunt said. “Better growing techniques, better water use. Better varieties. Letting the researchers know they can get the financial help they need – that’s our job.”

After the dramatic crop losses this season, the issue of crop insurance is also on Hunt’s mind. MSHS should support easy, broad insurance coverage that any producer of any crop can purchase, Hunt said.

Hunt doesn’t buy crop insurance for his own blueberries, but he knows other growers who do.

“I think it is better to put the money in healthy bushes and more irrigation for use as frost protection,” he said.

Hunt didn’t grow up around agriculture. In fact, he used to work as a retail manager for F.W. Woolworth, and then as a truck driver. It was while driving trucks around southwest Michigan that he got the idea of trying farming – after seeing all the fruit farms in the area.

“I was driving around looking at all the apples and blueberries and thought, ‘I’d like to work on a farm,” he said. “I met a guy named Lou Crawford and started working for him. Ten years later I made him an offer and started buying him out. That was 30 years ago.”

Hunt currently has 110 acres of blueberries on 200-plus acres of land as part of his company, New Horizon Harvest Corp. He is a partner in the MBG cooperative.

He was affected by the weather this spring, much like other growers in Michigan.

“I’m down,” he said. “I’ve got maybe 60 percent of a normal crop. Two-thirds of our crop I can protect in frost protection. The farm that I couldn’t protect was devastated. Now I’m adding frost protection to that farm. It really does pay for itself.”

Hunt said the berries had overall good quality, but were small. Smaller berries made for harder picking, he said, but with the dry weather he didn’t have the problem of rain causing the berries to swell and get soft. The firmer the berry, the higher the quality, he said.

“My biggest problem was finding enough labor, because they all came in ripe at once.”

Sixty percent of his crop is for the fresh market, and those have to be hand picked, Hunt said. The other 40 percent, for the processed market, is machine harvested.

While Hunt only had 60 percent of a normal crop, he also had about 60 percent of his normal labor force. He doesn’t offer housing and relies on a central core of workers, some of whom have been with him for 20 years.

“I have a field manager that has been with me for 20 years who is very well known and does a good job recruiting,” he said. “I do have high turnover. I think the issue this season was the lack of apples. Workers just didn’t come up.”

While the crop size and the berry size were down, prices have been up on the fresh side, Hunt said. He reported getting 20 percent more over last year; over the last 10 years, prices have been up 30 percent. However, those gains are tempered by additional costs.

“My costs are up over 10 percent,” he said. “The berries were harder to pick because they were smaller. Did I make 20 percent more net? I don’t think so.”

Hunt is currently planting more acres, using a raised mulch-bed platform with plastic covering. The technique brings the plants into production in two to three years, as opposed to five to seven years, he said.

“I’m planting eight acres of Liberty, an MSU variety targeting late-season fresh, because that’s where the money is,” he said.

Click here to watch a video interview with Steve Hunt.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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