Dec 2, 2023New Michigan horticulture group leader embraces change
Beth Hubbard is not one to shy away from assessing a situation and making changes.
She did so after 28 years as an executive in the automotive industry, moving back to her family’s farm.
Since then, Hubbard has transitioned Corey Lake Orchards’ business model from a commodity/truck farm to an agritourism destination.
The incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS), Hubbard is president of the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO (GLEXPO) board and heads the planning board of the 2023 event, Dec. 5-7 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A return to the farm
Hubbard’s parents, Dayton and Allene, purchased the farm in 1961 when she was five years old. Although growing up on a farm left a huge impression on her, she and her three sisters didn’t return there after college. Beth Hubbard took a job with General Motors after graduating from Michigan State University.
She worked for the company — the largest in the world at the time — and its subdivisions for almost three decades. Although she found working there to be fulfilling, the financial crises of the 2000s made the work stressful. In 2008, Hubbard was working for GM spinoff Delphi, which was in bankruptcy proceedings, and her mind was on the farm.
Allene Hubbard, who handled the marketing for the farm, died of cancer in 2005.
“I ended up leaving (my automotive career) mostly because I felt the need to be back on the farm was greater than my finishing up the next couple of years (at Delphi), with the farm really needing a marketing presence. It needed that to keep going,” Beth Hubbard said.
She moved back to Three Rivers in 2008, and saw the need to learn the horticultural side of the business as well.
“So I started following my Dad around for several years, learning everything I could, and got my horticultural degree from his ‘hands-on school,’ you could say.”
The transition from a corporate position to life on the farm was seamless.
“It was really clear that after I came back that my heart had always been in this business, in farming,” Hubbard said.
In 2016, her sister, Brenda Hubbard (co-owner of Corey Lake Orchards), became involved again as well, updating the website and social media posts and scheduling u-pick visits from her home in Florida, among other duties. In the fall, Brenda returns to the farm to help in person.
Changes at Corey Lake Orchards
Beth Hubbard said she saw a need to change the farm’s outdated business model, letting the commodities set the ups and downs of the operation: grow a lot and sell what you can.
While that had been a successful model at one time, families weren’t buying by the bushel anymore. Canning, cooking and baking weren’t the common drivers of fruit and vegetable sales.
“That was the business model and I think small family farms like this one, we all ended up having to re-adjust to the customer not buying bushels anymore,” Hubbard said. “The most popular size (apple) bag at farm markets is the half-peck bag.”
Her father had been removing apple trees and planted 100 acres of grapes, and she began doing the opposite to give customers more apple choices while maintaining the traditional varieties. The farm offers 27 varieties of apples grown on 35 acres. Visitors can pick their own apples, juice grapes, blueberries, strawberries and pumpkins. The farm market has a full range of vegetables, in season.
Beth Hubbard added hard cider production: the business already had a cider mill on site and Dayton Hubbard, who died in 2014, had opened a distillery, so the business was licensed for alcohol. A value-added product grant from the state helped purchase the hard cider equipment.
Other major changes included adding a bakery and branching into agritourism with a sunflower maze, pumpkin patch and other activities. Tours, education sessions and school outreach are popular ways to bring community members to Corey Lake Orchards.
“The whole thing we’re trying to do is provide a really excellent farm experience, so that someone can leave here knowing more about agriculture and about the food they eat and where it comes from than they did when they came,” she said.
The location is central between Detroit and Chicago, and on the way to Grand Rapids for people driving to northern Michigan, so it’s not uncommon for city residents to stop by.
“(Consumers) are becoming more removed from farms, and they know less about farms and how fruit is grown,” Hubbard said. “It becomes a bigger job to help educate the consumers to understand that every apple doesn’t grow in a plastic pack, all the same size and same shape, looking pretty.”
While farm markets provide an ideal environment to educate consumers, Hubbard said a common drawback is that employees don’t have as much time to spend with customers as they’d like.
The role of MSHS
One of the main missions of the MSHS and sister organization Michigan Vegetable Council is presenting the GLEXPO, a shared goal since they first collaborated on the event in the early 2000s. The event helps fulfill the organizations’ missions of supporting the industry through research and education.
“Everything in the world changes and we’ve been trying to adapt the show itself, especially because we couldn’t have it during COVID and had to make some changes,”
This year’s GLEXPO has a greater focus on technology, with Emerging Tech Innovation sessions to address challenges from labor to crop inputs and waste reduction, and an AgTech forum featuring innovators and their projects.
“We’re trying to showcase technology that is really going to be needed going forward, when you look at the issues we’re facing, especially labor, not only in Michigan, but in the United States and everywhere,” she said.
Climate change and how it will affect production and growers in the future will need answers on production practices and varieties that are best suited to those changes, she said.
“We also know that an important part of attending this show is networking and learning from others. This year you will see more built-in opportunities for that to happen, like smaller roundtables with key topics,” she said.
Besides the GLEXPO planning and execution, the MSHS’ role is to network with commodity groups and others in the fruit industry, as well as lobby for maintaining industry human resources and institutional knowledge. Hubbard said she and other growers rely on information from MSU Extension and other academic sources, but it’s important to maintain roles throughout the industry as people retire or leave the industry for other reasons.
She has been on the MSHS board for eight years.
“It has been a truly rewarding experience for me to learn from others on the board,” she said. “I love that as a team, we have such varied farms and backgrounds which helps all of us to advance the fruit industry with the work of MSHS.”
— Chris Koger, managing editor
Top photo: Hubbard’s goal at Corey Lake Orchards: To entertain, feed and educate visitors. She wants them to know more about agriculture and the food they eat than when they arrived.