Nov 7, 2022
New Michigan Hort Society president secures his niche

Douglas DeLeo has been involved with growing specialty crops much of his life. Working for a blueberry grower while in high school, he developed an affinity for farming that has lasted more than 50 years.

DeLeo, of DeLeo Farms, in southwest Michigan just outside of the city of Bangor, is the incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS). He succeeds Will Bristol, a fifth-generation grower of tree fruit in eastern Michigan’s Lapeer County. 

The MSHS, founded in 1870, represents roughly 1,600 growers, sponsoring research projects and scholarships, as well as partnering with Michigan Vegetable Council to organize the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in December each year.

“I graduated from college with a degree in accounting and finance, but had little interest in being a bookkeeper,” DeLeo said. “I worked at that a little bit, and said ‘that just isn’t for me.’”

In elementary school, DeLeo attended Wood School in Bangor, one of the last one-room schools in Michigan, through fifth grade.

“My dad, Samuel, and his dad were dairy farmers,” he said. “That’s the most miserable life you can live on, being a dairy farmer. That’s a seven-day-a-week job, and (milking cows) twice a day.”

The family, immigrants from Italy, had three milk goats there, and they thought having 40 Holsteins in the U.S. was a “big deal.” Now, 40 milk cows is just a hobby, DeLeo said.

“In high school, I worked for a blueberry farmer after my dad didn’t need me on the dairy farm so much,” he said. “His theory was ‘if you can find another job and work, you don’t always have to work for me.’ So I got involved with a blueberry farmer and knew nothing about it, other than I liked to eat them.”

Being a laborer on the blueberry farm was a good education, DeLeo said, and by 17 he was driving truckloads of blueberries to the processor.

“I didn’t get home until about 8 p.m., so there wasn’t much I could do at home,” he said. “I got interested in blueberries and more and more wanted to raise them. We didn’t live on ground where you could raise blueberries.”

DeLeo said his father raised pickles and cucumbers, but not much fruit.

Partners in ag

Susan, Doug’s wife, grew up on a nearby farm that had 10-15 acres of fruit and about 40 acres of potatoes.

“I married a Bangor girl. We never lived more than four miles away from where we were both born and raised,” he said.

“My wife said she hated having school end in the spring because that meant working on the farm all summer, picking potatoes by hand,” DeLeo said. “They never had a harvester, they had a digger. They would hire help and a lot of kids at that time who were anxious for two-hour jobs after school. Today, I guess that’s a dirty word for kids working after school.”

Although the area between west Bangor and Covert area had tree fruit, blueberries dominated the area. After the DeLeos married, they moved near Bangor and became more involved in the blueberry and small fruit business.

“We started buying more ground. With both of us coming from farming backgrounds, it was a little easier for us to understand what a good farm was, and what good ground was,” he said.

They also grow raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, including organic, but have more vegetables than berries, with asparagus, potatoes and 30 different cherry tomato varieties. Four high tunnels and two greenhouses are for tomato production. 

DeLeo plants some newer blueberry varieties on a small scale to ensure they’re suited for his market, mostly fresh and direct sales.

“We’re not a big grower, I mean by having 25 acres of blueberries,” he said. “ … Some of the new varieties are developed more for processing, which don’t work for us. We’ll plant an acre of them and if they don’t pan out for us it’s not a big deal for us to get rid of them and try another. I know it’s five years down the road, but if something doesn’t work for you, you have to get out from underneath it.”

The DeLeos have been attending the Kalamazoo Farmers Market for 51 years, carrying on a tradition from their grandparents who started attending the market in the 1930s.

“My wife’s been there her entire life,” DeLeo said. “She’s never had a summer when she wasn’t at the market in Kalamazoo. She started in 1940, practically born and raised at that market. We sell a lot directly to consumers.”

Learning to adapt

After discarding some older plantings of apples – including “a lot of old McIntosh, some of the early Cortlands and old-fashioned Red Delicious and some Goldens, DeLeo Farms concentrates on vegetables, berries and chestnuts.

The apples, planted 35 trees per acre, were “big as a house” and couldn’t be sprayed or picked efficiently. 

“They became firewood for us. There’s no sense keeping stuff that isn’t real productive any more,” he said. “I know growers that say, ‘oh, my grandpa planted that. I just can’t bear to get rid of it.’”

“You’re kidding yourself. You’re spinning your wheels. We don’t drive Model A cars or hand-start tractors anymore. You have to move with the times.”

The DeLeos have about 40 chestnut trees.

“We’ve had them for 40 years. We’re quite a believer in chestnuts,” he said. “They need to be developed a little more. There’s a Michigan chestnut alliance, which with Michigan State, has done a lot of research in chestnuts.”

Chestnuts have a future in the area, and can compete against imports, DeLeo said.

“We can raise them and there’s no reason why we’re not doing it. They aren’t easy to harvest, but they’re easier to store,” he said. “You don’t have to have controlled-atmosphere storage like you do with other tree fruits or berries. They’re easy to grade. You don’t need computers to grade, package and sell them. A lot of them are sold in grocery stores in bulk.”

DeLeo said blueberries will also continue to be a valued Michigan crop, as long as varieties are chosen well.

“I know a lot of guys think it’s over with and way over-planted,” he said. “That type of thing is taking itself out of the business because they planted varieties that all ripen within two weeks of one another. There’s not enough help or machinery to get it picked, processed and sold. You have to expand that season. There’s some good newer varieties coming out now. They’re picking into September. This has helped.”

Labor continues to be an issue, with early fall apple harvest encroaching on blueberry picking.

“A lot of the help says, ‘look, I’ve picked blueberries for four weeks. I’m done.’ They go into picking apples or other fruit.”

As direct sellers, DeLeo said food safety certification is important.

“The last thing any farmer or any processor wants is to have an accident or have some somebody become ill from eating something,” he said. “Even if you can’t prove it came from the farm, you surely don’t want that in the news about a foodborne illness.”

Mandatory training videos are in English and Spanish.

“We have dish-pan hands from washing buckets and lugs every day. We’ve passed the food safety inspections and we’re proud of that,” DeLeo said.

— Gary Pullano, Senior FGN Correspondent

PHOTO: Douglas DeLeo, who grows blueberries and other fruit and vegetables in southwest Michigan, is the incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society. PHOTO: Gary Pullano

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