Dec 7, 2020
Hensley to lead Michigan Vegetable Council

A well-traveled leader of west Michigan’s Swanson Pickle Co. is set to lead the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) for the next two years.

Katie Hensley studied in Spain, and worked for Syngenta in Switzerland and Miami before returning in 2013 to the family farm operation where she’s the chief financial officer. In addition to serving on the Michigan Vegetable Council, she also is on the board of directors for the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids.

With a season full of bumps due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “every day was a new adventure, but we got through it,” she said. “I think we’re surviving it.”

Pickles pour into containers on a truck after being extracted from a brine tank.

Building up business

Located near the village of Ravenna in Muskegon County, the company runs a cucumber pickling operation that draws cucumbers from its farm acreage – about 3,000 acres of cucumbers, corn and soybeans – although the majority come from other growers. The site includes a grading facility and yard with dozens of giant tanks of brine where the cucumbers are pickled. Hensley’s father, John Swanson, is the company president while uncle Dave Swanson schedules when other growers can drop off their cucumbers for processing. Hensley and her brothers Wes and Matt round out the management team – although there are many shared responsibilities, Katie focuses on finances, while Matt and Wes lead the farm operations and brine tanks, respectively.

Swanson Pickle has continued to invest in equipment and facilities in recent years. The farm operation two years ago added vision technology for sorting out foreign materials from the cucumbers. The device, Optimum Sorting’s Focus 1800, sorts out debris like corn stalks or vines that are taken in by the mechanical harvesters. The Swansons also recently built housing for workers who come to Michigan for the asparagus and apple seasons in addition to pickles.

Katie Hensley
Katie Hensley

“There’s a domestic migrant workforce that comes from Texas and Florida, following crops up and down the U.S., but if you don’t have housing, you’re not really a viable workplace for those people,” Hensley said.

Although they currently use domestic labor for seasonal work rather than contract with foreign crews through the H-2A visa program, the Swansons built the housing to the higher standards required for H-2A. Not only did the facility help with recruiting, but it was also well-received by the farm’s longtime workers.

“Most everybody that comes, it’s not the first time we’ve seen them. We have some people that return every year,” Hensley said. “We have people that will leave their things there – really great employees that are coming back.”

Pandemic precautions

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic brought on many changes for the business, which employs 50 seasonal workers in addition to the 25 year-round staff.

“We added plexiglass; we of course did temperature checks, screenings,” Hensley said. “We used masks. We used all the (Centers for Disease Control) measures. We even created new lunch areas; we put in more hand-washing stations. All of that is going to be good for use down the road, but the pandemic definitely forced us to do a lot of things to create a safe work environment for people.”

Plexiglass panels for safety were installed at the Swansons’ pickle grading facility. Photo: Katie Hensley

Even so, labor and hiring in 2020 were more of a struggle than in years past.

“There were people who were really nervous about it and wanted to feel safe,” she said. “But I think we did address everyone’s concerns. … We feel really fortunate that we never had to stop in March when many industries and businesses had to just abruptly stop.”

Regional responsibility

Although she’s served in other regional leadership roles, the two-year term as president of the 1,200-member MVC does mean an increase in responsibility for Hensley.

Growers elected to the MVC board of directors serve three-year terms and are allowed to serve up to three consecutive terms. Presidents serve two-year terms. The group applies for grants and raises funds for research and scholarships.

While Hensley said Pickle Packers International in past years has applied for and received specialty crop block grants for research and promotional purposes, this year the MVC received a $91,577 grant to research strategies for dealing with fungicide-resistant downy mildew. Michigan State University’s Mary Hausbeck and her staff will conduct the research, which is a big issue for cucurbit growers including Swanson Pickle – Hensley said downy mildew pressure was an issue again in 2020.

In addition to applying for grants, the MVC partners with the Michigan State Horticultural Society to run a yearly trade show, the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids. The event proceeds help support scholarships for agriculture students and fund research.

RELATED: Katie Hensley named to Fruit + Vegetable 40 Under 40 Class of 2018

This year, the event is being presented in a virtual-only online format. Hensley, who serves on the joint board that plans and runs the EXPO, said that it was a difficult decision to make, but the responsible thing to do. The Great Lakes EXPO typically draws roughly 4,000 attendees to the DeVos Place, and cutting those numbers to allow social distancing would have put the operation in the red.

“If you start to cut those numbers but still have the expenses of the entire show, the math just doesn’t work on that,” Hensley said. “There wasn’t another option while still being fiscally responsible.”

The show must go on, and the virtual Great Lakes EXPO this fall will include a virtual trade show and as interactive presentations meant to capture the growers’ attention as well as provide useful education.

“It’s all to support the industry,” Hensley said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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