Jul 1, 2016
Pioneer left his mark on the blueberry industry

The blueberry world is continuing to pay tribute to Ron Bodtke, an industry pioneer, loving husband and family man. Ron died May 14 at his home in Grand Junction, Michigan.

“Ron was a noteworthy and valuable member of MBG Marketing/Michigan Blueberry Growers Association in Grand Junction,” according to a Naturipe Farms news release. “His adventure in blueberry growing began in 1969 when he and his wife, Phyllis, bought a 12-acre blueberry farm from MBG’s pioneering horticulturist, John W. Nelson.

“The family farm grew exponentially,” the release stated. “In 1985, Ron added his four children as business partners and formed Cornerstone Ag Enterprises.

Ron’s son, Larry Bodtke, described his father as someone “who loved. And loved being around people. He was always an encourager of those interested in the same passions that he had, particularly blueberries.”

Today, Cornerstone Ag is a key producer of organic and conventional blueberries, sold under the Naturipe brand, from farms across Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.

Ron Bodtke and his wife Phyllis. They were married for 63 years. Photos: Cornerstone Ag Enterprises

“After I rejoined MBG Marketing in 1995, Ron was the first visitor to my office,” said former MBG CEO Kirk McCreary. “He brought me a hammer mounted on a plaque, which read: ‘This hammer could be used to tear something down, or build something lasting. Be a builder.’ Ron was the true builder.”

According to Naturipe, Ron was a forward thinker. He served as president of both MBG Marketing and the North American Blueberry Council (NABC). He was also instrumental in forming the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) and International Blueberry Organization. He was a long-time member of the Michigan State Horticultural Society.

“Ron’s dedication to the blueberry industry was admired by all and he played a big part in the success of the blueberry business,” said Mark Villata, USHBC’s executive director. “We all appreciated his contributions to both the NABC, where he served as president and on numerous committees, and the USHBC over the years.

He was a great source to go to when you had questions about the history of our industry, while at the same time also an excellent source when considering where we need to be in the future. He will definitely be missed by his many friends in the blueberry industry.”

Ron received many honors in recognition of his contributions and leadership, including the respected MBG Marketing Pioneer Award, the Calyx Award for general industry or market development excellence from NABC, and the Distinguished Award to Agriculture from the Michigan Frozen Food Packers Association.

“Ron was a friend to people, not because he agreed with their particular thinking, but because they were a person in Grand Junction, Michigan, or in Novgorod, Russia, or in a coffee shop in the U.S. heartland,” said John Shelford, former Naturipe Farms CEO.

“Ron was a proud Michigan farmer who made a focused and sustainable contribution to the blueberry industry. He and his wife had an inspiring life commitment to their family while taking on numerous projects of faith and giving,” said Larry Ensfield, CEO of MBG.

Lorrie Ford Merker, vice president of grower relations and cooperative affairs for MBG Marketing/ The Blueberry People, knew Ron Bodtke for 30 years, working with him in the industry for 27 years.

“He was a mentor to a lot of people,” Merker said. “I was one of the kids – the same age as his kids. He brought me under his wings at MBG so I could understand and learn the industry. I worked at NABC as assistant treasurer, and he really helped me get to know the business.”

Merker recalls the strength of Ron’s convictions.

“He was respectful of others and their convictions. He may have disagreed but he was not disagreeable, and everyone respected him for that.”

Ron Bodtke with, from left, son Larry, daughter Kay and son Tom.
Ron Bodtke with, from left, son Larry, daughter Kay and son Tom.

She recalled “dozens of times” Ron would gather those from other other regions in social settings to get familiar with each other, making meetings easier to navigate.

“That is one of the successes of our industry,” she said. “We may be friendly competitors and we can be united in blueberries. He went to Georgia and got to know folks and helped them in the early ’80s. He didn’t just shake hands and say hello. He was there to help and facilitate all those type of things.

“He and (wife) Phyllis were true partners, his best friend. Phyllis was the rudder; he was the motor. They had good team work. They traveled extensively getting to know the industry and making friends. He made sure anybody was welcome at his place anytime and he visited extensively. There was always an open line of communications. He made it so much bigger than just MBG.”

Ron is survived by his wife of 63 years, along with their children Tom (Arlene) Bodtke, Larry (Liana) Bodtke, Pam (Joe) Stafford and Kay (Lupe) Trevino and their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Bodtke children followed in their father’s footsteps and became involved in blueberries and agriculture. Using their father as a role model, they now serve in leadership positions at MBG, Naturipe, NABC and other organizations.

Son credits faith

“He was a definitely a hard worker and instilled the value of hard work and putting your best effort forth on things you would do,” Larry Bodtke told Fruit Growers News. “He certainly instilled in us the importance of our Christian faith – that’s a real comfort to us in his passing, knowing he’s in a better spot, and someday we will see him soon.”

Larry Bodtke is a blueberry grower who operates Cornerstone Ag Enterprises near South Haven, Michigan, along with his brother Tom and sister Kay. The operation began as a 12-acre farm in 1969 under the guidance of their parents, who remained 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 eight years ago. The Bodtkes also keep busy with The Beeches Golf Club, a golf course development they own nearby.

“From a personal standpoint, he was always a loving father and loved his family and people in general,” Larry said. “He was excited about getting people excited about the things he enjoyed doing. He was certainly a man of determination and perseverance.”

Larry said his father “would readily admit he was not the greatest student in high school or when he attended MSU (Michigan State University). He had a drive and determination to make sure people could achieve the American dream without being great at academics. It was about determination, perseverance and keeping your nose to the grindstone.”

Ron “loved his country and knew it was a great place, and to have liberty and freedom we have to do what we can do,” Larry said.

Larry said Ron encouraged his children to explore other avenues before settling into the family’s agriculture business.

“He definitely wanted it to be known we were all welcome and it would be a great thing for the family to work together, but not to the detriment of each individual. It was more important to do what we were called to do.”

Ron oversaw the development of the blueberry business that is now the company’s main emphasis, but his “entrepreneurial spirit to try different things” led to the business growing corn and soybeans and other endeavors, Larry said.

“Thinking about it all these years, right now we are mostly in the blueberry business, but Dad was never one to shy away from trying other things. Over the last 45 years he was in and out of the hog business twice, Christmas trees, bees, we had a cattle herd, hay, cranberries and apples.”

“It was even to the point of venturing into things not related to agriculture,” Larry said. “We have the golf course and development property that goes along with that. He was always thinking about other things.”

It was Ron’s “passion for the blueberry industry and the people in it” that will be recalled most by growers from around the globe.

The Bodtke family includes, from left, Joe Stafford (Pam's husband), Pam Stafford (daughter), Tom Bodtke, Arlene Bodtke (Tom's wife), Larry Bodtke, Liana Bodtke (Larry's wife), Ron Bodtke, Phyllis Bodtke, Kay Trevino (daughter) and Lupe Trevino (Kay's husband).
The Bodtke family includes, from left, Joe Stafford (Pam’s husband), Pam Stafford (daughter), Tom Bodtke, Arlene Bodtke (Tom’s wife), Larry Bodtke, Liana Bodtke (Larry’s wife), Ron Bodtke, Phyllis Bodtke, Kay Trevino (daughter) and Lupe Trevino (Kay’s husband).

Larry said Ron’s dedication even led him and other family members to take a couple of blueberry harvesters to Georgia in the early 1980s, when the industry was just taking hold in that state.

“He helped run some processing plants down there, sharing the knowledge of processing and helping them when the Georgia blueberry industry was in its infancy.”

Ron also had an eye toward the future, working with a grandson on converting an old harvester into a mechanical picking mechanism to “try to make it work better for fresh packing berries,” Larry said. “One of my nephews is still involved in trying to bring those ideas to fruition. We’ll see what comes of that.”

Larry credited his mother, Phyllis, for keeping his father on track.

“I think about the team they made, from the standpoint of my dad just being a real spark plug and the ideas person, but my mom more so when we talk about academics,” Larry said. “It was about my mom being able to take care of a lot of the details that dad may not have been so interested in. She stood there right by him, and in some sense Dad was the gas pedal and sometimes Mom was the brake, just helping him think through things and realizing what made them possible at the time.”

Larry told the story of his parents being in Florida last fall. Ron had purchased an orange grove and had plans to convert it to a blueberry farm.

“They were down in Florida, and my dad saw a sign in a restaurant that he had Mom forward to us by email.”

Larry said the phrase, which was printed on the program at Ron’s funeral, summed up his father’s philosophy perfectly:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and proclaiming, ‘Wow, what a ride!’”


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