Oct 31, 2013
MSHS head touts benefits of research

With numerous challenges facing fruit growers, an organization founded on the concept of “awakening a larger interest in Michigan’s horticultural possibilities” has plenty of opportunities to make an impact.

Larry Bodtke, the new president of the 1,250-member Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS), intends to help keep the organization focused on meeting those challenges.

Bodtke is a blueberry grower who operates Cornerstone Ag Enterprises near South Haven, Mich., along with his brother Tom and sister Kay. The operation began as a 12-acre farm in 1969 under the guidance of their parents, Ron and Phyllis, who are still involved with the business in an advisory capacity.

Cornerstone now has 1,000 acres of blueberries in Michigan and is in partnership with a couple of blueberry farms in northwest Washington and Oregon. The company moved into a new office facility near South Haven five years ago. Bodtke also keeps busy with a golf course he owns nearby.

Bodtke spent part of his youth in the Detroit area before his parents relocated back to the fruit belt region of southwest Michigan. Bodtke and his siblings were educated at Michigan State University, “getting degrees in different areas,” he said. “We all went off and did different things before coming back to the farm.”

Bodtke worked in the agricultural lending business for a number of years before returning to the farm in 1989.

He had become somewhat familiar with agriculture through the work of his father, who sold fertilizer to farm cooperatives, municipalities, golf courses and garden centers. His parents had grown up on fruit and vegetable farms and they returned to those roots in the late 1960s.

The early agriculture indoctrination came in handy for Bodtke. In addition to blueberries, Cornerstone manages 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

It’s the partnership in the Pacific Northwest that he has found most intriguing.

“One is an organic farm in the eastern part of Washington that’s all blueberries. We bought an operation near Salem, Oregon, and expanded to another farm in Mossyrock, Washington,” Bodtke said. “The original farm in Salem had some plantings on it back in the late 1950s or early ’60s. We bought it from the son-in-law of the original owner.”

Bodtke also is pleased with the performance of the Michigan blueberry operation – particularly this year.

“It will be interesting to see where the numbers come out – whether we end up with a record or not,” he said. “We had a pretty good crop, with beautiful harvest weather for the most part. We had a week in early July when it was hot, and another week in September. Other than that we had nice, cool nights.”

With ongoing threats such as spotted wing drosophila (SWD) impacting crops like blueberries, Bodtke hopes his industry will continue to be a beneficiary of the horticultural research, Extension and education programs and public information materials funded in part by the efforts of MSHS.

“Funding for research is a huge thing,” Bodtke said. “We want to make sure to generate enough money to have the seed money needed to team up with Project GREEEN, or have enough to give to one of the researchers at MSU to study these issues.”

Invasive species such as SWD and the brown marmorated stink bug are prime examples of pests that threaten crops, he said.

“SWD has totally transformed our spray program in blueberries,” Bodtke said. “We used to be able to go to the first week of August with our regular spray program to take care of blueberry maggot and Japanese beetle. Both would then fall off the map and we could relax our spray program.

“SWD starts escalating then. Every seven days you have to be out there, and after a rain. It’s just a real tough one.”

He said the impact of SWD on product is stark.

“The biggest loss is in the quality,” he said. “We think we are delivering a great product and then we find some (SWD) in it, and then it’s juice,” he said. “The difference in value is enormous. We have had some product downgraded and we’re trying to figure out everything we can do to not have it show up in the product coming out of the field.”

Bodtke said methods to combat SWD – including tactics used in the processing facility to help reduce the impact of the pest – have had some success.

“Hydrocooling seems to flush some of them out,” he said. “We set them in a cooler for a couple of days and it almost forces them out, and when we put them through the hydrocooler it takes quite a few out. We have had some decent success of cleaning up product if it’s not too bad coming out of the field. If we did have a major infestation, it’s pretty much going to juice products.”

Another issue of concern for MSHS is farm labor.

“As it relates to the horticultural society, our focus is more so on production, research and disseminating that information to growers,” Bodtke acknowledged. “But the hort society is a member of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. They do a great job of lobbying for ag employers. From the society’s perspective, we can’t do all of the things related to ag, but at least team up with people who are trying to do that.”

As for Cornerstone’s labor situation, Bodtke said the operation employs hundreds of people – with housing available for 700 – but has had difficulty keeping up. It has raised the piece-rate to retain pickers and has had to turn to machine harvesting more frequently than it would prefer, as hand-picked fruit yields more valuable fresh-pack product.

“The labor situation at the peak of harvest seemed OK,” he said. “As we’ve moved later in the season, it’s become tough. Some of the workers are heading down the road because they have kids in school. A good apple crop has drawn people out of blueberries, so picking later in the season always gets a little tougher than midseason. We ended up machine harvesting some fruit we would normally hand pick.

“Obviously, we need something in the way of immigration reform,” Bodtke said. “It’s such a tough political issue and just doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I think for a lot of people who don’t buy into the (U.S.) Senate proposal for immigration, they have to realize we have a broken system and have to do something to fix it. It might not be a perfect fix, but hopefully it’s better than what we have now. We’ve just got to do it, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not.”

In the meantime, MSHS will continue to emphasize horticultural pursuits. The organization is one of the groups behind a plan to create a tree fruit commission for Michigan’s apple, cherry, peach and plum industries.

“The focus is on the money to maintain and keep the research stations strong,” Bodtke said of the commission. “It would be more focused toward the infrastructure to make sure there is a farm manager there to carry on research, and not just be project-specific.”

Gary Pullano

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