Jan 21, 2016Farming memories: Barb Radewald worked in Michigan vegetable industry for decades
Barbara Radewald was a “city girl” who married a farmer, grew to love agriculture and the people who practiced it and ended up becoming a leader in the vegetable-growing industry. Now 83 and retired, she says farming has changed a lot in the last few decades – but many of the challenges remain the same.
Barb was in charge of the packinghouse, but early on she did a lot of farm marketing and drove product to various stores. Back then, you “went to stores to talk to them about being your customers, or they would come to your farms when you were picking your crops,” she said. “Now, you don’t really talk to a person face to face. You get a lot of good out of seeing a person. It’s different than talking on the phone.”
Radewald Farms was ahead of the curve in many ways. Early on, the four owners developed a partnership agreement that would “cover all the bases,” making sure all would be taken care of if something should happen to one of the partners. Other farmers took an interest in what they did, and partnership agreements are now standard practice in farming, Barb said.
“Stan and Ed were good at forward thinking,” she said. “Many old-time farmers don’t like to give attorneys or accountants what is needed, but you need that information on paper.”
They also were one of the first farms to buy a computer. They needed something to help them keep better track of how much their workers had picked and how much they should be paid. They had to hire someone to enter the information properly in the computer. Finding the right person to do that was difficult, since computers were so new at the time, Barb said.
The Radewalds hired a lot of local high school and college students. Years later, many of those students told Barb and her family that working on the farm was one of the best things that had happened to them. They had to perform a variety of tasks and learn to work with a variety of people. They had to be flexible. As adults, many of them found good management jobs.
“It makes you feel good,” Barb said.
The Radewalds also hired migrant workers, who usually showed up as whole families.
“They were families, we were families. We all worked together,” Barb said. “It was a good situation.”
But it didn’t last forever. Barb sold her share of the farm in 2005, after Stanley died. She now lives in St. Joseph, Michigan. Ed also passed away (Virginia is still around). Since there were no children who wanted to take over, the rest of the farmland was sold, Barb said.
Barb served as president – the first woman to do so – of the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) for two years, in 1982-83 (her husband served as president in 1969). It was one of many leadership roles she took in agriculture. She served on committees that helped develop Michigan State University research stations. She served in an organization (she couldn’t recall its name) that regularly brought leaders from different segments of ag – pork, beef, apple, cherry, dairy,
etc. – together in Lansing to discuss common concerns and legislative solutions. She said learning about other growers’ problems during these meetings was “enlightening.”
“People assumed that if you were in agriculture, you knew everything about agriculture,” she said. “But if you were a vegetable or fruit grower, you didn’t know a lot about poultry or pork.”
Michigan’s vegetable growers learned way more than they bargained for in the winter of 1977, during MVC’s annual convention in Lansing. A huge snowstorm stranded them in their hotels for an extra few days. Since the hotel cooks were blocked from getting to work, Barb said, the farm wives used the hotel kitchens to prepare meals for everybody who was stuck. Deciding to make the best of the situation, the exiles put on a floor show in the evenings. Some people sang. One guy told jokes. During the day, convention speakers gave their talks again. There wasn’t much else to do. Instead of being a disaster, the storm turned into a fun experience – and built a lot of camaraderie for later conventions.
Barb was an early advocate of merging MVC’s annual convention with that of the Michigan State Horticultural Society. One of her arguments was that
the chemical, equipment and other companies had to send representatives to both shows, which was obviously more expensive than sending them to one. The groups eventually agreed to merge their conventions, creating the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, one of the best produce conventions in the country, she said.
Barb still visits the EXPO when she gets a chance. She said it’s nice to see older and younger farmers visit with each other and realize that – despite all the differences – many of the challenges remain the same.