Sep 19, 2016
Buurma Farms survives a century of change

Not counting two years in the U.S. Army, Curt Buurma has spent his entire life growing vegetables. And at age 76, he’s still on the farm every day – even though he retired a decade ago.

“I’ve been on the farm all my life,” he said. “It gets in your blood.”

Curt is one of the family partners who run Buurma Farms, a northern Ohio vegetable operation that stretches back more than a century. He’s seen the vegetable industry change quite a bit in the last few decades, and laid out some of the more obvious shifts.

In the 1950s and ’60s, most farm laborers were local or from Kentucky. Today, the vast majority are migrant workers from states like Texas, Florida and Georgia. And even that demographic has changed – where migrant families used to head north with six or seven kids in tow, now they show up with one or two.

Buurma Farms’ acreage has grown quite a bit over the years, and its crop mix has changed. The farm grows a lot of cilantro and dill now – crops it didn’t grow 50 years ago.

Farm equipment is more precise – and safer. Cellphones and digital technology make for more accurate exchanges of information.

Buurma Farms has extended its growing season, trying to harvest as early and as late as possible. Harvest starts about May 15 now, and ends Nov. 1 (they start and end with radishes). In the offseason, they service and repair every piece of equipment, Curt said.

In the busy season, Buurma Farms ships between 15,000 and 25,000 packages of produce a day, said Loren Buurma, company treasurer.

There’s more of an emphasis on food safety today. In a 2012 interview, Joel Buurma, the farm’s food safety manager, said its traceability system – which includes manual labeling, satellite mapping, scanners and computer software – can trace each box from field to customer.

buurmafarms

History

Curt’s grandfather, Frank Buurma, started the farm in 1896. He and other small farmers came south from Michigan to take advantage of the muck soils in north- central Ohio. The Buurmas started with a 5-acre plot and grew from there, gradually buying up more farmland in the region.

When Curt joined the family management team there were eight partners. Now there are 12. Each partner has his own responsibilities, whether in sales, equipment repair, food safety or field production. Curt’s two sons also work on the farm, he said.

As part of their gradual expansion, the Buurmas bought farmland in Michigan in 1976, and also own land in Georgia, Curt said. Between the three farms, they grow dozens of crops on thousands of acres.

When Curt was younger, the main crops were lettuce and celery. The crop mix has shifted over the years, reflecting America’s changing diet. Today, consumers prefer cilantro, dill, turnips, mustard greens, beets, collards, kale, green onions, parsley, radishes, cucumbers, squash and sweet corn, he said.

During peak season, more than 300 people work at the Ohio farm, Curt said. The Michigan and Georgia operations employ between 100 and 150 people each, Loren said.

At the Ohio farm, the Buurmas provide free housing for most of their migrant workers, as well as an on-farm health clinic (they’ve won awards for best camp in the state in the past). Curt used to manage the migrant housing. Now, his youngest son is in charge.

Francisco Villarreal, a foreman, has been working for Buurma Farms since 1986. When he started, he was harvesting green and red leaf lettuce, which the farm hasn’t grown for about a decade. He became a foreman assistant in 2001. Today, he supervises green onion pickers, he said.

So, how has Buurma Farms survived for more than a century? Curt attributes it to the family’s religious beliefs and close-knit ties.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor





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