Nov 3, 2021
Weathered grower to lead Michigan hort group

A conservative-minded grower from Southwestern Michigan will lead other growers in the state through 2022.

Scott Hassle is an owner and operator of Berrybrook Enterprises, a diversified farm operation that includes about 460 acres of apples and 420 acres of asparagus. He succeeds Will Bristol of Lapeer County as president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS), which represents roughly 1,600 of the state’s growers, sponsoring research projects and scholarships, as well as partnering with Michigan Vegetable Council to organize the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in December each year.

Hassle is no stranger to tough times and strategic decision-making. In the current year, he’s focused on surviving an epic hailstorm. In 2019, he had a large controlled atmosphere storage facility built, and in the long-term, he’s overseeing the transition of the semi-dwarf orchards of traditional cultivars, like Red Delicious, to modern high-density plantings of Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp.

“We stick to the tried and true,” he said, of selecting apple varieties.

Berrybrook trellis system
About 100 acres of Berrybrook’s apple orchards feature trellis systems. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman

The family

Hassle, with his brothers Joe Jr. and John, formed Berrybrook Enterprises in 1993. Previously, the operation had been known as Berrybrook Farms.

The three brothers manage a large farm near Dowagiac, Michigan – the legacy left by their parents, Joe Sr. and Harriett Hassle, who are now in their eighties. Scott oversees the apples and asparagus part of the business, while Joe and John oversee row crops and custom green bean harvesting for processing.

Scott said the farm operation is still best known around the state as his parents’ farm, although they began to withdraw from the work around 2016. He described Joe Sr. as a “driven” man, the son of an auto mechanic, who built a large, multi-faceted farm enterprise from an initial small holding of just 80 acres, purchased in 1951. “We’re blessed with acreage,” Hassle said of the current farm operation. “We’re able to rotate (crops) a lot.”

His mother was “the engineer that kept the train on the tracks,” Scott said. She was in charge of financing the expansions that were made. “We would have never made it without her.”

The farm

The farmland mainly features sandy loam soils that require irrigation for most fruit and vegetable crops.

Scott Hassle storage facility
A storage facility Scott Hassle built in 2019 has space for about 7.500 bins of apples.

Being located in the Great Lakes region, the farm relies on well water that has been in plentiful supply.

The farm relies on seasonal labor through the H-2A visa for its six-week asparagus harvest and six- to eight-week apple harvest each year.

“It’s expensive, but it’s a necessity for our short harvest windows,” he said. “Finding domestic workers to work for six weeks and then be off for six weeks, or a month or two months and then come back for six weeks is hard to do.”

Berrybrook’s apples are packed by Shafer Lake Fruit packing house, while asparagus is packed through Dietrich Orchards. The vast majority of asparagus – about 95% – is sold fresh. The new state-of-the-art CA storage facility that Scott built in 2019 holds about 7,500 bins of apples. Berrybrook’s apples are sold through Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.

“In this area, in Southern Michigan, most growers are heavy on Red Delicious. We’re making the transition to Galas, Fujis and Honeycrisp. It just takes time. And there’s still a market for Reds. We do pretty well with them,” he said.

So far, he’s steered clear of club apple varieties.

“They’re just a little too risky for my blood,” Hassle said. “I’ve seen some guys have success with them; I’ve seen some epic failures – and more failures than successes in my world.”

At Berrybrook, much of the farm is in semi-dwarf plantings, while about 100 acres of apples feature trellis systems. Its new orchard plantings are being pruned to the tall spindle design, with 3-by-11- or 3-by-12-foot spacings. About 10-20 acres of new plantings are added each year.

“I’d like to get to 250 acres of trellis,” Hassle said.

On a good year – a normal year – about half of Berrybrook’s apple crop will go for fresh sales and half for processing. This year, almost all of the apples are going for processing due to hail damage.

Perseverance

Rooting through a box of apples, Hassle pulls out plenty that look like they’re already missing a bite.

In October, the damage to the apple crop is seen from a Father’s Day hail storm.

In mid-October, that’s the aftermath of a Father’s Day hailstorm that hit orchards in Southwest Michigan.

“It’s the worst hail I’ve ever seen. Our farm … from the north side to the south boundary is probably 3.5 miles, and every single block of apples in that swathe has a hail damage problem.”
The hail, which ranged up to golf-ball size, in some cases literally knocked the fruit off the tree. It affected many other apple growers in the area, Hassle said.

“Thank God for crop insurance,” he said.

In a normal year, main concerns about apple growing include an increasing problem with brown marmorated stink bugs, as well as fire blight.

A difficulty of diagnosing stink bug damage is that the spots look very similar to bitter pit. Hassle said he hasn’t had to spray for stink bugs yet, but “it’s right around the corner.”

Fire blight control necessitates carefully managing tree growth (fire blight loves new growth) and pulling out infected trees to reduce the spread.

“They call it fire blight for a reason,” Hassle said. “Maybe it’s because it looks like the tree is burnt, but I call it fire blight because it spreads like wildfire.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor




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