Jan 3, 2019Justin Oomen to lead Michigan Vegetable Council as president
Justin Oomen, a young family man from an old farming family, will be the next president of the Michigan Vegetable Council.
As president, Oomen, 34, will replace Doug Horkey of Horkey Brothers in Dundee, Michigan. Oomen is a third-generation grower at Oomen Farms in west Michigan’s Oceana County, where he has a variety of responsibilities including planting. He and his wife Danielle have a son, Colton, who is 17 months old.
A statewide industry group, the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) was incorporated in 1964 and today represents more than 1,200 growers. Growers elected to its board of directors serve three-year terms and are allowed to serve up to three consecutive terms.
Oomen, who is is finishing his sixth year on the MVC, will take over as president in January 2019, and will then serve as president for two years. Along with the Michigan State Horticultural Society, the MVC runs a yearly trade show with education sessions for growers, the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids. Oomen has served and led the joint board that plans and runs the EXPO. The event proceeds help support scholarships for agriculture students and fund research.
“It’s a way to do something for the greater good of all farmers,” Oomen said. Leadership on the MVC and the EXPO board is also a way to stay aware of all the challenges growers face every day. “You take (industry problems) head on,” he said. “It makes you a better farmer.”
In west Michigan’s Oceana County, Ooman Farms was founded by John C. Oomen, Justin’s grandfather, who started growing asparagus and cherries. Justin’s father, Rick, and uncle Tom are now partners in the company. Several members of the third generation, including Justin, his brother Jared, his sister Kristin, and cousins Kyle, Brock and Derek, are still involved in the farm today.
The diversified farm’s growing season starts with growing asparagus crowns or rootstock, then asparagus spears, carrots, zucchini, green beans, winter squash and rutabagas. They also grow wheat and corn for crop rotation. There are other business interests: Oomen Farms owns one-third of Michigan Freeze Pack in Hart. Justin, Jared, Kyle, Derek and Brock also own and operate an organic vegetable farm.
But Oomen Farms is best known for its asparagus and carrots.
Oceana County is renowned for its asparagus growing – Hart, Michigan, is the self-proclaimed “Asparagus Capital of the Nation” and holds an annual festival to celebrate the vegetable. Oomen said they grow about 400 acres of asparagus, about 70 percent of which is sold fresh.
The carrots take up 550 acres, more space than any other crop on the farm’s 3,200-acres in the Crystal Valley near Hart. The carrots are processed into baby food.
The carrots are what Oomen calls “dicers,” with broad shoulders and a wide diameter. Processors prefer the carrots be as large as possible, and so the carrots stay in the ground longer than other crops. They are planted in late April and early May, and are among the last crops harvested before Thanksgiving.
“Carrots can stand a little bit of cold weather until the tops go,” Oomen said. Even a bit of snow isn’t necessarily a crop-killer, he said. If the ground thaws out, and there is a top, they can still be harvested. A mechanical harvester pulls up the carrots by their tops, then cuts off the tops, which are dropped back on the field.
Many of the other crops are hand-picked, though, and labor remains a key issue for the farm that employs 60-80 seasonal workers.
“We’ve pretty much gone into H-2A, but we still employ domestic workers,” Oomen said. A labor contractor supplies the farm with harvest crews in the U.S. with H-2A work visas. “It’s super expensive, but if you want to be in business, you’re forced into it.”
Oomen Farms also has been exploring its possibilities for getting more into fresh processing. In February this year, Oomen Farms was selected by Michigan for a $125,000 grant to install equipment for value-added processing of Michigan-grown carrots, zucchini and other vegetables in a more consumer- and processor-ready form.
“Big picture? We just wanted more opportunities if they came along,” Oomen said. The equipment hasn’t been completely installed yet, but the project could lead to more avenues for processing and selling vegetables.
Michigan Vegetable Council Executive Director Greg Bird pointed to Oomen’s work in organics with his brother and cousins as an example of Oomen’s work ethic.
“If working for Oomen Farms, known for their asparagus in Oceana County, is not enough, Justin Oomen is leading the way for a new venture known as Crystal Valley Organics,” Bird said. “Crystal Valley Organics is a newly formed, large-scale organic produce operation. Justin is known for his work ethic and his innovative way of thinking about how to address farming issues. The Michigan Vegetable Council is excited to have Justin begin as council president.”