Nov 20, 2020
Will Bristol to lead Michigan State Horticultural Society

A grower among growers, Will Bristol will help lead Michigan’s tree fruit industry through 2021.

Bristol is a fifth-generation grower of tree fruit in eastern Michigan’s Lapeer County – an hour’s drive north of downtown Detroit – but he’s well known around the state. A job as a precision agriculture lead for Nutrien Ag Solutions means he’s often visiting or ringing up other growers in other Michigan growing areas.

He replaces Brett Anderson of Sparta 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.

While it’s been a strange year, Bristol is poised well to represent the growers, having known many of the other leaders since high school, possessing a working knowledge of precision agriculture, and having dealt with some of the peculiar oddities of running an orchard and farm market during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A family farm history

The Bristol family has been growing fruit for centuries – predating their settlement of Almont, Michigan, and even immigration to the continent.

“We joke, you know, we’ve been fruit farmers since we were in England 13 generations ago, so we think we’re finally getting good at it,” Bristol said.

“Five generations ago, on the other side of the road, my family was farming,” Bristol said. “My family’s been in this same one-mile stretch for eight generations now. We settled this town, actually, and before that we were fruit farmers for seven generations in Connecticut, coming to America in 1640. So, we’ve got a long history.”

Brookwood Fruit Farm is primarily a retail operation. Photos: Brookwood Fruit Farm

One barn on the site goes back to 1910 – a traditional horse barn with four stalls and hayloft, it is used to park a tractor in the winter. Today, Brookwood Fruit Farm consists of about 100 acres – 40 of which are dedicated to fruit trees, primarily apples but also peaches and tart cherries, and a few pears. A small number of pumpkins are also grown for the farm’s retail operation.

One of the interesting features of the farm is a pick-your-own operation for tart cherries. A loyal customer base is made up of eastern Europeans who use the cherries in baking and liquors, Bristol said. Customers may pick for 2-2.5 hours before taking the cherries to be pitted there on the farm.

“I always compare apples to being a marathon,” Bristol said. “Tart cherries (season) is a sprint. Within seven to 10 days, that entire crop is picked and gone.”

But the farm is mostly about the apples – a large number of varieties are grown, such as Northern Spies, Spygold, Wolf River and Snow.

“A lot of the varieties we have, we may only have a few trees of, or a few dozen trees of,” Bristol said. “Our basic strategy is, that, because we’re a retail farm, we’re trying to have all of those mainstays – Fuji, Galas and Honeycrisp, everything like that. But we also want something new and interesting that you really have to keep coming back for. Some of the varieties you may only see for one day or one week out of the year.”

He said one customer last year drove all the way from Kansas, planning a whole trip around getting a specific, rare type of apple.

“It’s that sort of thing that allows us, on a relatively small farm, to form our niche,” he said.

Leading ahead

With a head for technology and a solid background at the family farm, Bristol seems as well-equipped as any for the challenges of the new year.

Bristol came up in the industry as the youngest of five brothers working with his grandfather and father on the farm running day-to-day operations.

“I grew up never wanting to do anything else,” he said.

Eventually, he did want to “expand his horizons,” as he puts it, and that led to a full-time position as a precision agriculture lead for Nutrien Ag Solutions – the farm has split up duties so Bristol can hold down the outside job while still managing “big-picture” decisions for the farm.

His position with Nutrien involves training and supporting sales and operations staff in its software platform, called Echelon.

“This computer software encompasses scouting – our apps do that digitally – and being able to send that (scouting) to growers; and being able to write prescriptions, crop plans; and then taking growers’ data, as applied data, and (using) that to grow better crops next year,” Bristol said.

RELATED: Will Bristol named to Fruit + Vegetable 40 Under 40 

Growing up working with his father, Bristol was exposed to apple industry leadership as a teenager.

“My dad has been on the MACMA (Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association) board for literally decades, and so about high school, I started going to some meetings with him,” he said.

Currently, in addition to MSHS, Bristol serves on the board that runs the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO. This year, the board made the tough call to hold the EXPO in a virtual, online-only format.

“We’re still planning a full slate of educational sessions,” Bristol said. The virtual trade show and education sessions will allow for interaction. “It’s not just a website with some links. It’s not just a website with some pictures.”

While virtual trade shows are an unfortunate reality of the agriculture industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s relatively a small matter compared to other regulations growers faced in 2020 and may face in the future: Keeping staff and customers safe from infection. Bristol said that some orders that came down from officials seemed poorly conceived – for instance, applying different safety protocols to domestic and foreign farmhands who normally work side-by-side.

But, in late July, he was done with the “sprint” of cherry harvest and was looking forward to the “marathon” of a good apple season at the farm market. His customers seemed eager to “get out of the house and do something.” And, taken as a whole, COVID-19 was starting to seem more manageable.

“It’s presenting a lot of challenges, but I don’t think they’re challenges that we’re not ready for,” he said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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