Oct 30, 2014
Research a priority for hort president

Research drives survival and growth in the agriculture industry, and a Michigan group remains focused on providing support for those efforts in a challenging funding climate.

“The society, along with some of the other commodity organizations up to this point, have been the main partners that the researchers can rely on when they needed funding, and when they were in between funding cycles or the federal government came up short,” said Steve Tennes, the incoming president of the 1,250-member Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS).

“We’ve been able to bridge the gap to keep a lot of critical research going forward,” said Tennes, who operates The Country Mill – a farm and agritainment business near Charlotte, Michigan. “As fruit growers, we all understand that with perennial crops, you can’t just walk away one year and come back the next year. The hort society has been able to jump in and fill some of those gaps and keep the research moving forward.

“With our farm, in particular, I have realized how important research is, particularly in apples, blueberries and sweet cherries,” Tennes said. “I want to maintain the excellent relationship we have with Michigan State University researchers and other institutions, and the Extension office, to make sure they maintain the funding and support they need to do their job. We want to make sure we have good research for our farmers going forward.”

In addition, Tennes will continue to promote another focus of MSHS – co-hosting, along with the Michigan Vegetable Council, the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO, held each December in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“I have been an EXPO board member representing the horticultural society,” Tennes said. “As I look back in history, I remember as a kid being excited about getting out of school and going over to Grand Rapids to learn about all the new things for our farm and our farm market, as well as meeting people. As president, I want to make sure we not only maintain the high level of excellence that goes on at the EXPO, but that we look for new opportunities to grow the show and to deepen its value to our members.”

The Country Mill’s roots go back to 1871. Tennes’ parents bought the farm in 1971, with a desire to raise their children on a farm to instill strong values and a work ethic.

Tennes and his wife, Bridget, came back to the farm in 2003 after both served active duty for four years in the military.

“We enjoyed our time away, but we’ve also really enjoyed being able to start our family here on the farm, allowing our (five children under 10 years of age) to grow up learning the value of how food is grown and hard work.”

His two brothers and their families also have returned, pursuing a limited role of marketing the farm’s products and helping maintain a family farm background.

“We’re trying to be more of a farm family than being a family farm,” Tennes said. “We try to stay focused on our family so our profession as farmers is sustainable and attractive for the next generation. My oldest brother, his daughters are involved after high school, and I hope my children will be able to do the same and return to the farm.”

The farm currently has 120 acres, consisting of apples, peaches, blueberries and sweet cherries, along with sweet corn and pumpkins.

“We have, over the last eight years, grown a third of our orchards certified organic,” Tennes said. “We’ve entered that cautiously but willingly as a way to diversify the customer base.”

Organic products also help balance low processing prices that continue to be paid to conventional apple growers, he said.

“As a farmer, I grow the food that people want to eat,” he said. “That means keeping probably a third organic. If people want that, we are going to continue to grow that. There’s a perception you can make a ton of money on organic. If anyone believes that, they probably shouldn’t go into it.

“The main avenue for marketing our crops is through our farm market,” Tennes said. “We also sell wholesale apples and blueberries off the farm, as well.”

Being one of the few orchards in mid-Michigan, serving the Lansing market, the farm finds “a great opportunity to invite families to come out to the farm to learn about agriculture. We have school tours during the week and families or groups that come out on weekends for pick-your-own apples or blueberries.

“We really don’t sell fruit,” Tennes said. “We sell fun, and the fruit goes with it.”

Tennes, who has served as president of the Michigan Farm Marketing and Agri-Tourism Association, has multiple attractions on his farm, many of which capitalize on the learning experience.

“We’ve established merit-based training standards for our school tours,” he said. “The reason schools don’t have money (for field trips) is they have to justify what their students are learning. We really focus on learning. It’s become the core of our business. That’s where it’s all at.

“We really focus on learning and not the fun part of it. We’re growing our school tours. We’ve been gaining market share in our area. The students pay, or PTAs chip in – it introduces families that live in certain geographical areas to our farm. They’re able to return on the weekend with the whole family and do u-pick, or whatever. It’s advertising for us, essentially. We’re off the beaten path in a poor location. It is what it is. So we’ve made it a destination for people.”

In addition to the farm stand, a wine and cider making business, another profitable venture has been The Country Mill’s weddings, marketed through a website. In addition to an outdoor wedding area set up in an orchard setting, the operation uses revamped barn and farm stand space to host about 45 weddings a year.

“It’s grown into its own enterprise on our farm,” Tennes said. “It’s about 10 percent of our income. And it’s the most profitable 10 percent of our income. It’s been a real blessing.”

From Thanksgiving to July, the expansive farm stand building becomes a spot for weddings and other activities.

“We’ve been able to capitalize on the buildings we already have,” Tennes said. “It’s not only a source of income, we’ve also realized it is a source of advertisement. With 40 to 45 weddings, every week we’re getting 200 to 400 people – most of whom live within a one- our two-hour radius – to come here and realize what else we do, and say, ‘Oh, I want to come back in the fall.’

“In 2012, when very few of us had apples (due to a late spring freeze), (the wedding business) was a lifesaver. It enabled us to keep staffing and make our payroll throughout. It’s a paradigm shift when you look at financing (for a fruit crop), where you don’t get your money back until 12 to 15 months after the initial outlay, to having people pay two years in advance, pay on schedule, pay in full one month before the wedding. Farmers have to think differently about how we get paid.”

‘Farm family’ comes first

Tennes said, regardless of how smaller farm operations choose to find income sources, it still comes down to prioritization.

“As farmers, we are blessed in the sense that there are a few things everybody has to do. Eating is one of them, so we always have that to fall back on. Not every industry can say that. But as farmers and farm owners, in order to make our profession attractive to the next generation, we have to look at a quality of life.

“We have to make sure we develop farm families more than family farms,” Tennes said. “The farm has to work for the family.”

An example of that approach for Tennes, he said, is foregoing a crop of an earlier variety of blueberries because the production period would interfere with an annual family reunion in Nebraska, his wife’s home state.

“It’s one time of year we get together – the first week of July. I don’t grow any early season blueberries because I would not be able to go to that annual family reunion. There’s a cost to it, but there’s a cost to not having family, too. Those are the types of things small farms like us have to decide in order to have a quality of life.”

He said that with all of the demand to continuously ramp up direct marketing of product, it’s essential to go slow.

“You have to learn how to say ‘no,’” he said. ”That’s been hard for me and my wife to learn, but now with five children all under the age of 10, it’s a necessity. Otherwise, you will burn yourself out.”

He said with all the talk of “sustainability” in agricultural circles, “we don’t talk enough about quality of life and the work schedule where all of us are called on to do everything.”

Gary Pullano

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