Diversification and new technology help blueberry farm

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DEGRANDCHAMP FARMS.
DeGrandchamp Farms added cranberries in the mid-1990s as a way of diversifying its operation.

It goes without saying that blueberry growers need to focus on the little things—namely the blueberries. But at DeGrandchamp Farms (www.degrandchamps.com) in South Haven, Mich., they’re also focused on the big things, like the 150 acres of blueberries they have in production, the 30 acres of cranberries they’ve built up, the sprawling high-tech production facility, the on-site nursery operation, large farm market and the hundreds of employees it takes to run the operation.

DeGrandchamp Farms was started in 1958 with about 10 acres of blueberries. “Over the years, my dad planted more and more and we added more land,” says Mike DeGrand-champ, who returned after college in 1975 to join the family enterprise that he now runs with his brother, Bob.

Cranberries came on the scene in 1994. “My dad wanted to diversify, and Western Michigan University at the time was studying alternative crops for production in the state. Cranberries was the one crop that stood out as a viable alternative. We had a spot on the farm that we thought would work well, so we went ahead with it,” says DeGrandchamp, whose father unfortunately passed away shortly before the first cranberry planting.

He would have been pleased to see the results. “We made a few mistakes along the way—certainly, it’s a different crop than blueberries. But things have worked out very well over the years, and it’s been a good diversification for us,” says DeGrandchamp. Cranberries have been a good fit for two reasons: first, much of the same farm equipment can be used for both blueberries and cranberries; second, the crops require different harvesting schedules, so work can be staggered.

“We didn’t have to purchase a lot of new equipment specifically for cranberries. We did buy a harvester and a berry pump anda few other things, but other than that we had just about everything we needed,” DeGrandchamp explains. “And, we harvest the cranberries in October, after the blueberries in September. Plus, it lets us keep our seasonal crews a little longer.”

Make no mistake, blueberries remain the priority. DeGrandchamp Farms grows more than 30 varieties of blueberries in its nursery operation, with most sales going to commercial growers across North America and overseas. “On the low end, we sell to someone who might be putting in a half-acre. On the high end, the customer might be putting 20 or 30 acres in,” says DeGrandchamp.

DeGrandchamp Farms in South Haven, Mich., began as a small operation in the late 1950s. Since then, the family has expanded its acreage, added a retail store and nursery, built a processing plant and even branched out into cranberries.

The nursery even offers a few super-small packs to “homeowner” growers. DeGrand-champ Farms is a licensed propagator for blueberry varieties released by the University of Minnesota, Michigan State University, the USDA and others. The nursery also grows cranberries and lingonberries.

In the nursery, the blueberry season begins in November. “We’re busy propagating. We have a tissue culture lab and a big grow room where we build up the numbers we’re going to need for the next year or two,” says DeGrandchamp. “We have a core of employees that focus only on this.” As the stock builds, greenhouses are heated up to receive the plants. Once they have rooted and finished out in liners, they’re ready to be transplanted outside. “All the two-year-old plants are outside, and most commercial growers plant two-year-old plants in 1-gallon containers,” he explains.

Beginning in March, the nursery is busy shipping blueberry plants to growers; it ships again around September for fall planting. In the summer, a “skeleton” crew handles weeding, watering and other maintenance in the nursery.

The blueberry farming enterprise operates on a different schedule than the nursery. “January is probably the slowest month on the farm, especially when we have a lot of snow. We’ll work on equipment and get things organized, and during the winter we prune the bushes,” says DeGrandchamp. Herbicides and fertilizers are applied beginning in March.

Blueberry picking begins around the Fourth of July. DeGrand-champ Farms operates a large farm market where retail customers can buy blueberries, as well as preserves, jams, jellies, etc., or they can pick their own fruit.

Most of the fruit, though, is picked by hand and goes to the on-site processing plant. “In the summer, we hire about 100 to 150 hand-pickers to harvest the fruit,” says DeGrandchamp. There, the blueberries are packaged and marketed through the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association (www.blueberries.com) under the “Naturipe Farms” label.

The co-op—the largest of its kind in the world—lets the farm know almost daily what types (sizes) of packages to use in order to meet demand. “They’ll say, ‘We want pints or quarts or 5-pound packages,’ based on their projections and what they have sales commitments for,” DeGrandchamp explains.

Some 25 employees work in that facility, which is also dependent on the latest technology. “We’ve got electronic sorters, electronic soft-berry separators that measure the firmness of the berry. There have been some real advancements in this technology over the past four or five years. It’s highly mechanized, but at the tail end the berries still come out on a sorting conveyor where they’re manually looked at for any defects that might get through,” says DeGrandchamp. “And, the market today demands essentially absolute perfection. To achieve that you have to spend a lot of money. Every year it seems that we upgrade something.”

The electronic sorter and soft-berry separators used by DeGrandchamp Farms are produced by BBC Technologies (www.bbctechnologies.co.nz), which has its North American distribution headquarters just down the road. DeGrandchamp says this type of technology would have been unimaginable back in the era his father began the farm. “Color sorters have been around for a while, but they were just very large and expensive machines for plants that run year-round. When BBC came out with this unit, it was a breakthrough. It’s on wheels—about the size of a small desk—and PC-based; you just plug it in the wall. All of a sudden a medium-sized grower could afford this type of technology.”

A processing plant on the farm handles theinspection and packaging of fresh blueberriesusing cutting-edge technology, as wellas watchful human eyes. A separate plantnearby handles frozen blueberry packagingfor DeGrandchamp and a number of othergrowers.
The DeGrandchamp nursery provides blueberries mainly to commercial growers in all parts of the country.

There are a few blueberry varieties that are picked using harvesters. “Those go to a different plant that we cooperatively run with 12 other growers that mainly handles freezing and packaging,” says DeGrandchamp. “The regulations for [frozen packaging] got so extensive that a bunch of us got together and decided to build one plant that could run 6 or 7 or 8 million pounds to the right specifications.” The finished frozen products also are marketed under the Naturipe Farms label.

There have also been advances in the harvesting equipment the farm uses on select varieties of blueberries. The most recent purchase was about four years ago, a specially designed BEI International (www.beiintl.com) unit that loads all the fruit to the top of the machine rather than to the back, which is more typical. “In the past, all of the crews were on the ground moving stuff on carts and wagons. Now, everything is on top so it’s unloaded with forklifts, which is more efficient. I think we pick about 20 to 25 percent more fruit per day with that harvester,” says DeGrandchamp.

The farm uses New Holland vineyard-type narrow tractors with full shields and spray cabs. “The last one we bought had a front PTO on it, which was nice. When we prune, all the prunings go into the rows where they’re ground up as mulch using flail mowers,” he explains. “In the past, we’d have to drive over them because the flail mower was in the back. The front PTO lets us have the flail mower up front so we don’t have all that brush jamming up under the tractor.”

Most planting on the farm is done in the fall after the harvest season. “That’s pretty typical in Michigan, for a couple of reasons,” says DeGrandchamp. “First, the fields are usually in much better shape in the fall than in the spring, when they can be wet. The original reason we went to container-grown blueberry plants about 35 years ago is that we wanted to plant in the fall. If you have bed-grown plants, you have to wait for them to go dormant before you can dig them—and that’s November or December. With containers, you can really put the plants in any time of year if the fields are in good shape. The plants don’t even know they’ve been moved.”

Fall is also a better time for planting at DeGrandchamp Farms because spring is already busy enough. DeGrandchamp Farms doesn’t necessarily plant every single year, “but there aren’t many years that go by when we’re not expanding or replacing a variety. We’re in the middle of a 25-acre expansion that we’ve been working on for a few years, but once we’ve got that finished we’ll be done for a while,” says DeGrandchamp. “Blueberries are very long-growing. We have fields that are probably 60 years old, and they’re still very viable fields with good yields, so there’s no reason to replace them. Sometimes we have fields where a particular variety just didn’t work out, so we’ll replace those.”

A processing plant on the farm handles theinspection and packaging of fresh blueberriesusing cutting-edge technology, as wellas watchful human eyes. A separate plantnearby handles frozen blueberry packagingfor DeGrandchamp and a number of othergrowers.

With its blueberries destined for the fresh-fruit market, DeGrandchamp Farms has a preference for late-season varieties. “Michigan is never going to be early—some [warmer] state will always be earlier, but we can certainly be one of the later states. So, we concentrate on late-season varieties,” DeGrandchamp explains.

The fall season is harvesttime for cranberries as well. The beds on the farm are about 150 feet wide by as long as 1,000 feet, with most totaling a little over 4 acres in size. “Building the beds is sort of like building roads—it’s quite expensive. Everything is laser-leveled and crowned and ditched and diked,” DeGrandchamp explains. “It’s all designed for moving water in and out of the beds. There’s a lot of upfront cost in putting beds in, and there’s usually four or five years before you’re harvesting much of a crop.”

What’s more, as compared to blueberries, cranberries “are much more of a management crop,” says DeGrandchamp. “They’re shallow-rooted, growing in straight sand. Like on a golf course, you really have to water them. In the winter, we flood the beds back up for protection to build an ice layer about 6 to 8 inches thick.” In the spring, the water is drained back out and stored in a reservoir for later use. Despite all of the management required of the cranberry crops, DeGrand-champ says the farm has benefited from the diversification without taking away from its focus on blueberries.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. Visit www.FarmingForumSite.com to discuss this article!