True Blue Farms family

Aug 2, 2021
Michigan’s Shelly Hartmann USHBC’s first female chairperson

A Michigan grower who radiates optimism for what the blueberry industry can be is the new chairperson of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

More than that, Shelly Hartmann will be the first elected female chairperson of the 21-year-old organization, which today represents some 2,500 growers, packers and importers in North and South America. She succeeds Chris Barnhill of North Carolina.

“The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) is one of the only organizations that has an open dialogue regarding what is happening with the other growers’ operations in different parts of the world,” Hartmann said. “We are able to network and learn from each other.”

Made in Michigan

Hartmann, who co-owns True Blue Farms with her husband Dennis, said she is involved with owning, leasing or helping farm operations with roughly 500-600 total acres. In a news release, USHBC called True Blue Farms “one of the largest growers in North America, producing and marketing millions of pounds of blueberries.”

Although farming has been in the family for four generations (see related FGN 60th anniversary story), the couple started True Blue Farms in the early 1990s with fewer than 50 acres. They are based in southwest Michigan’s Grand Junction, just a few miles away from the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“We produce 12 distinct varieties of blueberries, allowing us to accommodate a variety of tastes and to have blueberries available throughout the entire summer,” Hartmann said. True Blue Farms has used mechanical harvesting for crops sold fresh. Typically, most fields will be harvested three times during the course of the season. The farm bounced back after a 2016 tornado destroyed its fresh pack facility and several vehicles.

In addition to farming and marketing, Hartmann and her husband are interested in value-added products with a venture called The Blueberry Store that is online and at a few retail locations and sells everything from blueberry soap to blueberry lip balm to blueberry sodas and blueberry dog treats. It’s not enough for the product to use blueberries – they also have to taste, smell or work well.

Like other members of USHBC, she’s optimistic that demand for blueberries can be increased through use in a greater variety of products.

“We have to get away from the idea that blueberries are just for pancakes, jams and jellies,” she said. “We just continue to see opportunity.”

In addition to serving on the USHBC board for 10 years, most recently as vice-chair, Hartmann is also actively involved in a number of other industry organizations and programs. She was appointed by the Michigan governor as treasurer of the Michigan Blueberry Commission (MBC). She also has served as a member of the board of the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program Advisory Council, and on the planning committee for the National Blueberry Festival, held annually in nearby South Haven, Michigan.

MBC is a relatively young trade organization, established in 2017 to fund research for concerns unique to Michigan. The group so far has focused mostly on pest, weed, yield and quality issues. Blueberry variety development so far hasn’t been a project.

“We’re always trying new varieties and considering it, but until the right one comes along, it’s going to be difficult because in Michigan, it’s just not something that happens overnight. We’re looking at an investment of time and money. In other regions, it’s a little easier because they grow a lot faster. Here in Michigan, probably we won’t even start to see any type of results for 3-4 years with actual maturity looking at 6-7 years.”

A common purpose

Hartmann said she’s enjoyed USHBC ever since first attending a meeting 10 years ago.

“We’re a friendly group of people that have blueberries in common,” she said. “It’s not just talking to one another, it’s listening.”

Growers can learn a lot from each other in part because they all have the same concerns – economics, labor and weather.

“Mother Nature and weather is always a factor whether it be in a crop or a tornado,” Hartmann said.

Kasey Cronquist, left, president of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, recently visited the Hartmanns’ farm. Photos: True Blue Farms

Growers who attend USHBC meetings online or in person can bring home expertise to other growers in their region. The next meeting, Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2021, will be available both ways with the physical location in Salem, Oregon.

As chairperson, Hartmann will complete this year’s term and will be eligible to serve additional terms as chair of the USHBC.

In the role, she hopes to “continue to drive demand for the blueberry industry through promotion and health research.” USHBC has launched two new websites in this effort, with facing consumer audiences and targeting health professionals.

“Shelly brings passion and dedication to the growth and success of the blueberry industry, and for these and many other reasons, I know she’ll be an excellent chairperson for our organization,” said Kasey Cronquist, president of USHBC and North American Blueberry Council. “During Chris Barnhill’s tenure, we have made tremendous progress on initiatives that have driven blueberry demand, and Shelly’s enthusiasm and leadership will continue to drive the USHBC towards new opportunities and the innovation we need going forward.”

Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor; Photo at top: Dennis and Shelly Hartmann, front, are shown with daughter Kara, and her husband, Jamie, who now are part of True Blue Farms’ operations.

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